After hosting Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, our most recent exhibition about photography during wartime, I was eager to see Photography and the Civil War at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.In the 21th century, we are accustomed to images capturing our every movement with great immediacy, but in the 19th century, photography was a very new medium at the time the Civil War broke out. Photographers Matthew B. Brady, George N. Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan took panoramic shots of the landscapes. Some were pictures of fields where the dead were not yet buried and others showed the fields in the months that followed.
These shots are from quite a distance, unlike “Attack” by Dmitrii Baltermants (above) where the photographer is crouching in the trench to get his shot. The Civil War photographers had to carry their enormous glass or silver plates, bottles of toxic solvents, and other requisite photographic equipment each time they set up a shot, and if they were getting an action shot, lengthy camera exposures were required. It was, perhaps, the antithesis of what we think of when we think of war photography today.As the curator Jeff Rosenheim writes in the catalog, “The Civil War … marks the beginning of photojournalism as we understand it today. Photographers in the field who worked for name-brand studios like those of Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner can be understood as the first embedded journalists.”
Though separated by 80 years, the photographers of the Civil War and World War II understood their responsibility of capturing these moments, memorializing the dead, and educating the public about the nature of war. Today, photojournalists can upload scenes of battle to a website, or send them out over Twitter and inform the public instantaneously, but their roles remain the same.The Met’s exhibition is up through Sept. 2. If you are passionate about photography, the Civil War, or President Lincoln, I urge you to visit the exhibition while you still can.
Dmitrii Baltermants (1912-1990)
gelatin silver print
24 x 36 inches
Gift of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh, CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder,
Photo: CU Art Museum
© Estate of Dmitrii Baltermants