Photography and the American Civil War, Metropolitan Museum, New York – review

The young men, long dead, stare at us with haunting innocence. Freshly uniformed and heedless of future horrors, they pose for the camera that will safeguard their faces for parents, wives and fiancées. And now, 150 years later, we strangers file by and stare at them with pity and awe, wondering if they are the same young men we see sprawled in ditches and on dusty slopes. These portraits and landscapes of death don’t capture the howls, the stench or the panicked confusion of battle, only the tension before and the emptiness after.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Photography and the American Civil War is an intermittently moving, sometimes absorbing, frequently familiar show that finally sinks under the weight of its comprehensiveness. It has all the benefits and drawbacks of an overstuffed anthology, leading us along a meandering path from fascination to frustration.

The civil war was the first major conflict to be documented so extensively and realistically, and the new medium of photography shaped its meaning right from the beginning. Curator Jeff Rosenheim takes us from Lincoln’s candidacy in 1860 to his assassination in 1865, lingering over key battles and pausing to examine the rafts of portraits generated by soldiers stopping in at the photo studio on their way to the front. In chunky wall texts and labels that turn a museum visit into an ambulatory reading session, Rosenheim delves into the swift expansion of the picture business. He proves, over and over again, that the photograph shaped the history it was so vigorously recording.

Mathew Brady’s name became synonymous with the civil war, but he didn’t muddy his own boots recording it. From his headquarters in Washington, DC, he dispatched deputies into the field and had them bring back photo-trophies, for which he took the credit. The sober brutality of these images was unprecedented. In 1862, he offered a report from Antietam, the war’s single bloodiest battle, in which 26,000 people were killed, wounded or captured. Brady exhibited the pictures, and sold card-sized prints that fitted into albums, also conveniently available for purchase. These grisly collectables shocked and excited viewers on the home front, sweeping away lingering fantasies of martial glory.

Though the war was fought in a narrow band of territory, the photographs made the carnage inescapable. The New York Times wrote: “If our readers wish to know the horrors of the battlefield, let them to go BRADY’S Gallery, and see the fearful reproductions which he has on exhibition, and for sale. In all the literal repulsiveness of nature, lie the naked corpses of our dead soldiers side by side in the quiet impassiveness of rest. Blackened faces, distorted features, expressions most agonizing, and details of absolute verity, teach us a lesson which it is well for us to learn.”

Still in its infancy, the medium demanded bulky cameras and slow exposure times. Cumbersome glass plates couldn’t capture the chaos of battle. But the dead don’t move. At Antietam, Brady’s surrogate Alexander Gardner had plenty of time to compose his morbid still lifes: the decaying flesh of a horse; bodies collected for burial; the blasted landscape, twisting itself into patterns of light and dark. These pictures were commercial products, and photographers sometimes diluted their gruesomeness with a teaspoon of treacle. Gardner wasn’t content to let his eloquent shot of a savagely torqued corpse speak for itself, so he adorned it with a tragic caption: “He Sleeps his Last Sleep. A Confederate Soldier being wounded had evidently dragged himself to a little ravine on the hillside, where he died.”

Titles and captions were often more touching than truthful, and Gardner regularly altered the evidence, sometimes conscripting a dead body for the opposite side. Controversy still swirls around two shots of the same corpse at Gettysburg, in which the soldier has posthumously changed locations and switched allegiances, but kept the same weapon. In the first frame, we see him close up, his clothes mingling with soil and debris. Gardner dubbed him a “sharpshooter”, yet the clean gun lying next to him is not a marksman’s rifle, but a prop that turns up in various other tableaux. The same body appears in another photo, this time at the base of a looming boulder, with the gun leaning at an artful angle against the rocks. According to the caption, he has become a “rebel sharpshooter”, and the dark grey tones make the uniform impossible to distinguish. No one knows who moved the body but there’s no question that the man behind the camera had a keen eye for theatre.

One of the show’s eeriest photos wore its staging on its sleeve, but the obvious fictions testify to a profounder truth. Five skulls line up along a stretcher, resting upon piles of rags and other human remains. A boot-clad foot drops off the platform, hitting the ground with palpable weight. In the background, four black men collect bones. A fifth perches next to the skulls, his dark face lined up with the bleached pates of the dead. This macabre study in black and white encapsulates something about the end of slavery, about sacrifice and the bitter price of survival. Like other images here, it bristles with stillness. Unfortunately, it is just one of hundreds.

In his 1990 documentary The Civil War, Ken Burns went one better than Gardner and Brady, giving vivid but inert photos a new narrative force by panning across each frame. (It’s an effect that iPhoto has since turned into a cliché.) Rosenheim has taken a different approach, telling his story by sheer accumulation and repetitiveness. After a few hours spent amid these ancient killing fields and ruined cities and formal portraits of the doomed, you may stagger away overcome not with the “pathos and poignancy” that Rosenheim invokes, but rather with numbness and a craving for editorial restraint.

Until September 2,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.