People of The American Civil War
Tintype Photographs from Raju Peddadaâ€™s Collection
With an introduction by Raju Peddada
Proudly presented by Camera Obscura
“Verbal representations of such places or scenes may, or may not, have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.” - Alexander Gardner, Civil War photographer, 1821-1882 “Portraits are the candle by which we read history.” - Julian Cox, Author, and curator of photography at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. “Some photographs flaunt the tyranny of time so frankly as to become timeless in themselves. In a brief human exchange that could happen tomorrow, we glance briefly at these faces - people, as they look back at us. There is no awareness of a camera being involved. We each have our own thoughts, probably ones as transient as those we see here, private musings that will soon drain from memory. And that is the magic of photography. Not only is a specific moment preserved, but time is suspended forever.” - Larry J. Schaaf, Independent photohistorian, professor of the History of Art at the Oxford University for the year 2005.
I cannot begin anything that says Civil War, without saying something about, perhaps, the greatest warrior after John Paul Jones, America had ever produced. The words duty, valor, sacrifice, class, and wit, can be coalesced together into one countenance, and shown as the meaning, which would be Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of the 20th Maine volunteers. In a tantalizing paradox, here’s a professor of rhetoric, who became the exemplar of action... his sword, matched the verve of his words. Chamberlain, and a handful few like him, had transcended their normal station in life, and their obligations, by their acts on the battlefield, that will echo through the ages, and before they turn into a myth, the least they deserve, is our worship, and gratitude. Civil War began initially, to save the union of the states, under one federal government, but, it turned into a battle for the emancipation of the African American slaves. I will leave the details of the War, to the reader’s due diligence. The first two pictures from my collection are probably derived from the Ambrotypes, taken in the later stages of the Civil War, after they had gained notoriety. Chamberlain’s photograph, as a Brigadier General, (promoted on the spot by General Grant after getting shot in the hip, in the battle of Petersburg. Despite dire predictions by doctors, he lived another fifty years, and ironically succumbed to the same wound in 1914. He became the last Civil War veteran to die of a wound sustained in battle) is one of the 934 prints, directly off of the glass plate negative, from the Library of Congress. It is a majestic profile of Chamberlain that not only captures his confidence, but, his restraint, and overwhelming decency. The second picture is that of General John Buford, and his staff, taken in 1863, right after the Battle of Gettysburg - left to right are: Myles Keogh, Seated is Buford, Peter Penn-Gaskell, Craig Wharton Wadsworth, and Albert Payson Morrow. Both well known photographs were taken by Mathew Brady.
â€œIn great deeds something abides. On the great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls... This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; to give lifeâ€™s best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal.â€? - Joshua L. Chamberlain, dedication of the Maine monuments at Gettysburg, Oct. 3, 1889.
Brigadier General, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain - Mathew Brady
General John Buford, and staff, after the battle of Gettysburg - Mathew Brady
“The camera is the eye of history.”
- Matthew Brady, 1822-1896
The mid 19th century Americans were the involuntary witnesses, as well as participants in their national catastrophe: the Civil War, from 1861-1865, which, consumed more than six-hundred thousand lives. In fact, the people of the early to mid 19th century, especially in America, were the first people ever to be photographed in large numbers. The pioneering photographers pierced the opaque veil on the human condition, which, before the advent of photography, was just available in impressions, through sketching, etching, and painting, never in unequivocal detail. By the time photographic hardware, and processing technology had matured, from the Daguerreotype process in the 1830s, through the Ambrotype, to the Tintype, in the 1850s, the Civil War had become a gory theater of the national suffrage, and, as the subject for the persevering photographers. The Civil War affected the country to come of age, by shedding its old mantle, but, it also made photography, a mainstream industry, not just a novelty, in augmenting journalism, by capturing irrefutable corroborating evidence, in “photographic” detail, to support what was being reported. The earliest photographic exhibits, like the ones Mathew Brady, and Alexander Gardner had staged in New York, and Washington, D.C., of their Civil War pictures, simply shocked the audiences, at the brutality, and wretchedness, in the time of war, which actually fueled the sentiments against it. From Europe to the west, photography had captured, in undeniable detail, the various cultures that existed across Europe, and here in the U.S., especially, that of the vanishing native Indian nations, and the onset of industrial modernity. Photography, in the 1840s was still a novelty, it was a metropolitan shtick, a kind of magic that the wealthy indulged in. But soon, the uses of photography overwhelmed the skeptics, and in due course, it attained the status of high art, by the turn of the twentieth century. With the advent of the first world war, photography was an established, and an indispensable archival medium.
Photography is the art that debilitates the concept of deniability, by rendering our reality manifest, and implacable. It is the only art that can serve as being metaphorical - abstract representation, and also, that celebrates detail. It also edifies our senses, by enabling us to grasp the transient moment, frozen for eternity. Photography is cerebral, it is the art of anticipation, and seeing beyond the obvious, into the subject(s), like Richard Avedon did, in that piercing and poignant picture of Marilyn Monroe, and, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Art Shay, and Robert Capa often did, in their early to mid 20th century documentation of Europe, and America.
“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”
- Louis Daguerre, 1787-1851
The earliest photograph of human beings engaged in a transaction, is from 1838, taken by Louis Daguerre, from his studio. It was a morning street scene, with a man getting his shoes shined in the foreground at the street corner - titled: “Le Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Eight in the morning, 1838?” Schaaf had this to say about the seminal photograph: “...this daguerreotype is the first known photograph of people, but it also proves Daguerre’s triumphal accomplishment of his goal of capturing images in the camera obscura, before he revealed his new art to the public in January 1839.” Daguerre, apparently, framed his first print, and presented it to King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1839, which, survived the great war, but, the fragile image, composed of mercury and silver, was appropriately compared to the “powdery scales” on butterfly wings, which was accidentally wiped away, in an ill-advised, and imprudent cleaning effort, after the war. Serendipitously, Beaumont Newhall, an unassuming photohistorian had rescued the image earlier, by having commissioned a high-quality negative for the 1937 MoMA exhibit in New York. Ironically, It was William Henry Fox Talbot’s process that preserved Daguerre’s magical first photograph.
This is a photographic essay on the portraits of the early to mid 19th century Americans, and incidentally, we stumble into similitude in the art of portraiture of the same time period, but, from different continents. One of the great photographic portraits of all time is that of Charles Baudelaire, the poet-of-darkness, by Etienne Carjat, in 1862. About the same time, the Civil War here was trending, and escalating into the bloody sphere, which it unequivocally became, in the ensuing three years. Ironically, you can feel a certain, but inexplicable turmoil in Baudelaire’s eyes. Gordon Baldwin, the curator of J. Paul Getty Museum offers this about it: “... he acquires the ferocious dignity of a Roman Senator of the republican era.” Another portrait, worthy of serious contemplation is that of another great writer, Thomas Carlyle, from 1867, by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) processed on wet collodion on glass plate negative. This photograph captured the rustic density of the Carlyle persona. And, despite his eyes being in the dark shadow, we can still feel his gaze, as he looks straight through the camera, into a world beyond. Carlyle’s portrait acutely captures his pertinacity of conviction, and that edacious, lawless intellect. Photographs today are just digits - numbers in your computer. Most of them are never cherished with a physical existence, relegated only to reside in the digital realm. Actually, photography is a product of the industrial revolution, it was invented at a crucial time, as if someone had the perfect light, aperture, and timing, to unleash the creative hands on a medium that could record our todays, for tomorrows. Photographic records of world history now exist since the 1840s. Photographers of the early to mid 19th century, had to be hands on craftsmen - and, we can see the tactile, organic, hand-hewn quality in their work, whether it a Daguerreotype, the Ambrotype or the Tintype, celebrated worldwide, for that one of a kind quality. If you look closely, you can see the brush marks on the edges, after the photographer had applied the photographic emulsion on silver, metal or glass plates.
“The Open Door” by William Henry Fox Talbot, was shot in 1844, it is one masterpiece that is arguably the pinnacle of photographic art, where Talbot celebrates the evidence of hand fabrication, engendering a kinship with the viewer in the creative process. The tactile, and a-work-in-progress appearance of Talbot’s photograph gives the illusion that the artist was not some unreachable entity, but a co-creator, to be studied, and enjoyed as an equal, an egalitarian process, with a symbiotic attachment between the creator and the audience. The tintypes are also the celebration of the hand-crafting process, especially, with all the accidental, and incidental imperfections that render them so earthy, mysterious, and alluring. Also, the unevenly trimmed tintype photographs, with unfinished edges, evoke the concentrated act of a craftsman, more than a hundred-fifty years ago, who was laboring to capture a moment for eternity. It is not just the portrait of a person that becomes evocative, but the very act of crafting it, is also captured, and telegraphed through time, in its distressed, and organic presence. One of my favorite photographs is called the “The Onion Field,” taken by George Davison in Essex, in 1889, through a pinhole camera, which demanded long exposures. This photograph caused a stir, when exhibited at the Photographic Society’s annual exhibit in 1890, in London. Many critics called Davison the leading “Impressionist Photographer” of his era. One critic from the Photographic News offered this: “If it be that the quality of a photograph is that it should look as unlike a photograph as possible...” Davison resorted to the concept of selective focus, which actually was no focus at all, by using a metal plate with a pinhole, no bigger than 1/50” in diameter, and, affixing this plate on the camera instead of the lens. Davison’s patience, and the judgment of time and light needed for the exposure, is a remarkable feat of intuition, and creativity, with such rudimentary equipment. You can almost sense, and feel the wavering onion stalks in the breeze, and the aroma wafting from it, and, the goings on in those farmsteads in the distance.
The tintype photographs presented here, are reversed postures, flopped, when we see them, simply due to the process, which we cannot detect. Some faces project the full intensity of their intellect, and personality into the future, seemingly prescient of their mortality, yet, looking determined to be remembered as forceful a personality as possible. The dynamic interaction, and trust between the subjects, and the photographers, resulted in great portraits, that have become etched on our conscience. These photographs on exposed metal-plates, about 3”x4,” look like anachronistic metallic Polaroids, from a bygone era - and are rich, in their careworn warm gray emulsion, flaked, blistered, mildewed, scratched, dented and bent, with frayed edges that had been handled, and passed on and on, for close to seven generations, and finally discarded, after all who had cared, were dead. For weeks, I obsessively mulled over the circumstances of their lives, and deaths, and where they were buried. They are haunting, in their abandoned state, with eyes staring through us, as if seeing through our evanescence, into an uncertain future, in a grim, and lugubrious manner. I always freeze, peering at these peculiar faces, that talk to me: “I am no different than you are... with loved ones, same hardships... all headed for oblivion... “ Last spring, as I peered at the faded, and frayed countenances, I experienced chills, the hair on my nape bristled up, when suddenly, I heard my antiques expert on the tintypes, almost shouting: “Do you know why they are looking at us like that?” I mumbled something incoherent, still affected “... it took a long time for the photographer to set the camera... the flash... the folks sat before the camera a long time, losing all their humor... turning somber like in a funeral, with their black outfits.” I kept scrutinizing, face after face... then it clicked, I was not looking at some strange faces, but, into the eyes of the nation’s history, at the bloodiest time, since its inception.
Who were they? Why were they abandoned... didn’t they have any descendents to treasure them? It was quite ironic that these people in the pictures, as I imagine, were happy-go-lucky folks, with their fleeting lives, only to be made permanent by some pioneering photographer, excising all their lively humor in those interminable moments, before the flash. It was as if fate was punishing them, with immortality, confiscating their frolicking anonymity. I could hear, in their penetrating looks, something like “We don’t want this permanence... release us from this exportation into another time” A face is more than just a face, it is a message: in cryptographic telepathy that conveyed the compressed energy of a life lived, and experienced, in a myriad details, that only a fecund imagination is allowed to coalesce. It can be a curse too. These strange cryptic countenances, from the bygone era, were simply telling - of a life during their Civil War. Civil War was the first great war of the industrial civilization, recorded by a process that was invented during the industrial revolution. One of the photogrpahic pioneers, who recorded that era was: Alexander Gardner, he became responsible for a seminal event in publishing history called: “Photographic Sketch of The War,” a priceless landmark, in political commentary accompanied by photographs. Photography had played an unprecedented role in the reporting of Civil War, and this book was a persuasive bid by Gardner, in forwarding the concept, and the notion that photography is, the newest medium in representing history, which, had the potential to champion, as well as, nurture a national memory. The book had a hundred Albumen prints, each accompanied by a commentary, targeted at the political elite, who, had set forth assuaging a wounded nation. Here’s a sample of his commentary, that captioned his famous ‘staged’ photograph: “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg 1863.” “Was he delirious with agony, or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer as the field of carnage faded before him? What visions, of loved ones far away, may have hovered above his stony pillow!” In my opinion, there is no such thing as an insignificant ambrotype, or a tintype photograph. Every photograph of a person, from the early to mid 19th century America, represented a part of the evolving national puzzle. It was an indispensible shard of our national memory. These pictures are pieces of a larger mosaic that was transformed during that tumultuous age. The tintype is a powerful soliloquy on the progress of the medium itself. This is where reality had ossified into a metaphor, and the osmosis of photographic emulsion to blood, becomes a fact... our history, exposed in blood. More than anything, these tintypes have become our meditation, on the universality of suffering, and the temporality of life.
“Portraiture is a window to the soul” - Anonymous
Some notes on the photographs: I implore you all to look at the photographs slowly, to linger over them, and imagine who these people were, what their circumstances were, and what they had experienced in their lives, during the industrial revolution. As a matter of fact, these were some of the participants, who had consummated the industrial revolution in America. Unfortunately, this collection is missing the tintypes on African Americans of that period, and I wonder if many exist at all, as they were hardly photographed during the turmoil of the age. And, if they do exist, they are rare, as a record for posterity, in museums. Also, consider this folks: If, some of the people on the tintypes, from the 1840s-60s, were 55-65 years old, or older, at the time when their photographs were taken, they would have been alive at the end of the Washington presidency, in 1797. If they were born after the turn of the 19th century, at the time of Lincolnâ€™s Birth, they would have been the contemporaries, at least living, during the administrations of Jefferson, Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson! In essence, we are looking at people that had worked and lived through the early, and formative years of the nation. If this is not astounding, I donâ€™t know what really is! When we take in the pictures, we cannot focus only on the fact that they were from mid 19th century, and the Civil War, but, these folks had a life before that, in the 1820s-30s-and-40s, and that is what makes these photographs dense, and rich with history - evocative, tantalizing, and indispensable. All fashion, and style came from Europe, and especially, Great Britain, as they were the people of the Victorian era: in the architecture of their homes, social customs and traditions, and as attested by their dress styles. Woman still wore the corsets, full black dresses that may have been stifling in the summers. Also, notice the men with their Darwinian soft-rounded collars, and flat hairstyles - closer to the scalp, all looking quite alike. Interestingly, you can distinguish between the farmer - the field hand, versus the educated, or the affluent set. There is that rustic distinction between people. Each photograph is a fingerprint of possibilities, that simply depends on our imagination and conjuration.
From the Micheal J. Walter collection
Inscription on the back: Matt - Caleb 1858
Inscription on the back: RT - 1861
Inscription on the back: My Dad - Fred Thompson.
Obviously brothers! Inscribed in the back: 1856
Is this an African American woman?
People of The American Civil War
Tintype Photographs from Raju Peddadaâ€™s Collection
by Raju Peddada Proudly presented by Camera Obscura