By George Sullivan; 2004. Publisher: Prestel Verlag. Library of Congress Control No.: 2004100561; ISBN No. 3-7913-2929-4; $29.95. www.prestel.com .
For most of us, America's great Civil War exists today almost exclusively in the photography of Mathew Brady, a name synonymous with the black and white images of battlefields, cavalry, soldiers, and generals that continue to haunt and inspire us. The Civil War marked not only the beginning of modern warfare, but also of modern documentarianism, with the ready eye of the camera replacing the retrospective brush of the history painting--and it was Brady's vision that urged it along.
Ironically, Brady had poor eyesight, owing to a childhood illness, and rarely took photographs himself. As George Sullivan explains in his concise, authoritative essays in this fine, 450-page collection of more than 400 Civil War photos, Brady was more entrepreneur than artist. Before the war, he had achieved fame for his daguerreotype portraits of the rich and famous, and his New York gallery was at the forefront of the 19th-century vogue for all manner of formal and souvenir photography. With the advent of the wet plate collodion process, which resulted in a glass negative from which any number of prints could be made, the daguerreotype was rendered obsolete, and the era of mass-produced photography was under way.
Thus, Brady's determination to document the breadth of the Civil War was as much a business decision as it was a historical imperative. Brady knew that the war was a momentous opportunity, so he assembled teams of superb, passionate photographers--among them Alexander Gardner, James Gibson, and Timothy O'Sullivan--to capture as much of the action as possible. The wet collodion process was cumbersome, though, requiring mobile darkrooms and 55-gallon water tanks, and as the war--which Brady thought would be a short one--began to drag on, the expenses mounted. Brady's finances were in a shambles before the war ended, and bankruptcy followed.
But the enduring legacy of Brady's studio outshines the unflattering light in which Brady's opportunism and mismanagement have cast him. Drawing from the thousands of Brady images that now reside with the U.S. Library of Congress and in the National Archives, author Sullivan offers crisp and often unforgettable reproductions of photos that span the war. From the first major battle, Bull Run, in 1861, through Antietam, Gettysburg, Sherman's Atlanta campaign, and the fall of Richmond, this book captures the tragic progression of a conflict that marked the end of America's innocence and the emergence of its new geopolitical landscape.
Indeed, landscape is at the heart of these photos--the sweep of muddy field, smoky encampment, rural and urban ruins, the linear vanishing points of railroad lines and wooden fortifications, and, inevitably, the saddening sprawl of dead bodies on a battlefield. Some photos are almost too perfect in the lost-innocence category--for example, an image by George Barnard of children staring in awe at a line of cavalrymen across the marshy plain of Bull Run. Other shots seem to hum with audible urgency, as in James Gibson's image of a field hospital after a battle, a veritable sea of the wounded.
Less interesting, perhaps, are the many posed photos of soldiers, officers, and regiments standing stiffly for posterity. But when the men are truly historic figures, their postures can be revealing. One famous shot, by Alexander Gardner, depicts President Lincoln before a tent at Antietam. To either side of him are Allan Pinkerton, of the Secret Service, and Major Gen. John McClernand, both of whom affect Napoleonic poses, with their right hands tucked inside their jackets. The stovepipe-hatted Lincoln, by contrast, towers over the two men, and stands easily, unselfconsciously, with an air of such dignity and grave understanding that there is no mistaking him for anything but the very soul of the Union.
Similarly, the images of displaced slave families and of the black Union soldiers of Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, remind us that the Civil War's catalyst, slavery, lent it its most human face. The black soldiers stand proudly, yet with a sober, mistrustful demeanor that charges the photograph with high ambiguity. It would have been easy for Brady's photographers to ignore the racial component of the war, given that the audience and market for these photographs would be overwhelmingly white, but it is obvious that the likes of Gardner and Gibson responded to a higher calling.
By the end, of course, as Brady's cameras document the "Grand Review" of the Army--a parade of troops along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., only weeks after the war's end and Lincoln's assassination--we can sense how quickly this central event in American history would become steeped in myth. The photos palpably convey a tired march of horses and men, an almost Homeric procession that carries a message of irrevocable change, sacrifice and the ongoing cost of freedom. Perhaps Mathew Brady viewed the Civil War, at first, as a theater of capitalism, but his cameras always saw it for what it was.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.