How Photography Feeds Our Fascination With the Civil War

How Photography Feeds Our Fascination With the Civil War

It is believed that the first war-related photographs were taken in 1847 by an anonymous photographer during the Mexican–American War, of which we “Remember the Alamo” and little else. But when we think of the American Civil War, especially in this sesquicentennial year, we quite vividly picture the war thanks to the army of photographers that captured that conflict through the still-young medium and brought it back to the home front. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War, studies how the “War Between the States” lives on as a dialogue between the modern viewer and century-and-a-half-old images as raw and fresh as pictures of contemporary wars beamed into our homes today. Of all the aspects of memory that feed our fascination with the Civil War, photography provides the single element that continually leaves us hungry for more.


It’s believed that somewhere around 1,000 photographers worked separately and/or together during the Civil War period to take the hundreds of thousands of photographs that circulated around the country and the world. Soldier on both sides rushing off to war stopped just long enough to pose for a photographic portrait for those left behind. The exhibition offers many of the familiar portraits of Union soldiers, but also (thanks to the amazing collection of David Wynn Vaughan) rare ambrotypes (glass) and tintypes (iron) of Confederate soldiers. These portraits truly illustrate democracy in action by ranging across all classes—from the simplest army private to generals to President Abraham Lincoln and even to slaves such as the man known as “Gordon,” who posed for the infamous Scourged Back photograph that became visual shorthand for the cruelties of slavery.

On July 4, 1863, the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly published a special “Independence Day” issue featuring a wood engraving of The Scourged Back, at the same time that the Battle of Gettysburg roiled in Pennsylvania.  Post-battle photographs from Gettysburg, such as Timothy H. O'Sullivan’s Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg (shown above), brought home the massive toll of this single battle. (The Met specifically timed this exhibition to coincide with the anniversary of Gettysburg as a sign of that battle’s central position in the influence of Civil War photography.) General John F. Reynolds fought bravely and led his men admirably at the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville, but was killed instantly by a sniper’s bullet on the first day of Gettysburg. (Major General Abner Doubleday, the apocryphal father of baseball, took Reynolds’ place.)  

An etching titled The Fall of Reynolds soon appeared to appeal to the traditional taste for heroic, romantic war, but photographs such as O’Sullivan’s fed the growing appetite for greater realism and honesty in depicting the stark reality of battle. O’Sullivan’s photograph of Reynolds fall found its way into Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of War, a two-volume collection compiled by Alexander Gardner featuring the photography of 11 artists, including Gardner himself. Among the 10 plates showing Gettysburg in the book, O’Sullivan’s A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, and Gardner’s Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, remain not just some of the time’s most powerful wartime photos, but also rank among the finest of all early photographs.

The Met plans to complement this photography exhibition with The Civil War and American Art (May 28 to September 2, 2013) and a show of American prints by Winslow Homer, Thomas Nast, and others related to the Civil War (May 20 to August 25, 2013). As much as I love the paintings and sculptures of this time, the photographs reach out in a way that the older, classical media cannot. Try to imagine Ken BurnsThe Civil War done without photographs. You just can’t. The immediacy and connectivity of photography from the Civil War period, despite the 150-year gap, plug right into the visual culture of today in a way that paintings, sculptures, and etchings cannot.

“I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” Sojourner Truth inscribed on the portrait of herself she used as her abolitionist calling card. These “shadows,” these photographic echoes of people and events long past, still “support the substance” of what took place on a human scale at that time and continues to take place in our age of seemingly endless wars. Mathew Brady, Gardner, and other photographers continue to catch flak for staging some Civil War photos to enhance the pathos (see, for example, “The Case of the Moved Body”), but the truth of the images presented in Photography and the American Civil War really lies not in how they made them but in how our ancestors once used them and, more importantly, how we use them today. I plan on visiting Gettysburg with my family this July to see the reenactments of those four terrible days. I’ll be watching living men and women before me, but in my mind’s eye I’ll be continually comparing them to the pictures in my head—those perpetual reenactors.

[Image: Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840-1882). Alexander Gardner (American, Glasgow, Scotland 1821-1882 Washington, D.C.). Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, 1863. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Preceding page in the album with printed title and caption. Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005. 2005.100.502.1 (37). Image: ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

[Many thanks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to Photography and the American Civil War, which runs through September 2, 2013.]

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

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Credit: Pixabay
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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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