Photographs of War: What Are They Good For?

Photographer Unknown, The Pattillo Brothers (Benjamin, George, James, and John), Company K, "Henry Volunteers," Twenty-second Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861-63. Ambrotype. Courtesy the David Wynn Vaughan Collection, Atlanta.

The copy introducing “Photography and the American Civil War” borrows from the exhibition’s catalogue—published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the exhibition originated—to argue that the show is about the history of photography as a medium: “This is not a history of the Civil War, but rather an exploration of the role of the camera at a watershed moment in American culture.” An informative placard continues, “In the creation of this vast treasury of photographs—a national visual library of sorts—the camera performed a key role the opposing armies and their leaders could not: it defined and perhaps even helped unify the nation through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making.”

That may be so, and it is true that Civil War photography is a major field of study in the history of photography, but the exhibition isn’t about that—not really. If it were, NOMA would not be charging a special inflated admission rate to see it ($15 instead of the normal $10) nor exempting it from its weekly Free Day. The museum is charging extra because it knows it can—not because people are so captivated by the history of photography, but because they’re captivated by war. Scores of people who would never otherwise set foot in an art museum will pay to see the show because it nourishes our permanent national obsession with the concept of war as not only a justifiable act, but as a necessary (and often valiant) one. Visitors who come looking for that narrative are certainly going to find it.

The exhibition’s claim that it is not a history of the Civil War gives it the excuse to provide essentially zero historical context and keep the war cozily in the capsule molded for us in high school history class: The Noble North comes to its moral senses and risks the lives of its own sons in the name of racial equality and national unity. “This is essentially a People’s contest,” Abraham Lincoln implores in text on the gallery wall, “to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

The exhibition fails to note that the North’s enlightenment came only after centuries of unabashedly reaping slavery’s benefits in the process of establishing industries that did not depend on it, thus relieving it of an economic incentive to sustain the “peculiar institution”—nor does it comment on the constant onslaught of violence and oppression against racial fairness exacted by state and unofficial actors from the moment of abolition to the present day. It also omits the fact that the North’s righteous anti-racism was offered up on a case-by-case basis—the Civil War was the primary training ground for soldiers from both sides who were dispatched westward shortly after to slaughter Native Americans, toward whom whites at the time were feeling far less benevolent.

The exhibition’s offering of context essentially amounts to a photo of abolitionist Sojourner Truth; the famous photo of Gordon, the runaway slave, his back covered with tall scars from the lash; and a section called “The African-American Experience,” which consists of a whopping four photographs (the exhibition includes 200 photos in all) of “laborers” and “contrabands,” which I guess are meant to illustrate what slaves’ lives were like. This representation correlates to the typical American gaze at conflict that can clearly see fighters but can discern only a muddled picture of what’s at stake. It also fits squarely within the popular, bigoted understanding of black people at the time: a sorry lot, not much to look at, but a fine excuse for white people to go and commit brave acts of heroism.

Photographer Unknown, I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance, 1864. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, New York.

“Photography and the American Civil War” seems to make three primary points about the medium and its application to war at the time: photographing war was technically difficult; technological advancements in photography made it widely affordable; and, for the first time, photography “brought war home” for people who had read about but never seen it. These revelations appear as subtext beneath the thick veneer of war cheerleading the exhibition presents us via pictures of serene ruins, portraits of gallant soldiers, inspirational Lincoln quotes, and the occasional solemn shot of the war’s dead. However, this subtext is instructive in showing us how little the nature and function of war photography has changed in the past 150 years and how similarly it continues to relate to its viewership.

Photographing war at the near-dawn of the medium was technically difficult because early cameras were sizable machines and most required long exposures that blurred all but the slightest movements—capturing images from the frantic milieu of combat was out of the question. This fact combined with the increased affordability of photographs at the war’s start led to the prevalence of cartes-de-visite, prompting thousands of soldiers for whom death was potentially imminent to sit for portraits to send to loved ones back home. These small tintypes and ambrotypes, each set in its own ornate case, are displayed throughout the exhibition’s main galleries and make up the bulk of its offerings. In the captions to many of these images—which fawn over the young men’s handsomeness and fine attire like a fashion magazine—we find the exhibition’s clearest articulation of war lust:

“This striking young Confederate smiles and seems ready for action and whatever the future will bring.” (He’s hoping it will be a continuation of slavery.)

“This straightforward portrait of a dashing Union officer wearing a frock coat and holding a saber bayonet-mounted rifle is notable for the innocence of his expression and for the clarity of the hunting horn badge seen in the center of his regulation black felt dress hat.” (These boys know how to accessorize.)

“This portrait of a cavalryman is an excellent example of a well-armed Confederate soldier … The most frightening weapons in his arsenal may be his focused stare and his set jaw.” (Yowza!)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from these portraits that paint each armed rube as a potential white knight are images—such as those by Matthew Brady—that, for the first time, gave the public an acute and poignant view of what the horror of war looks like. Brady, who exhibited photos of the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Antietam in his New York gallery, rightfully acknowledged “the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” An 1862 New York Times article, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, said, “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

George N. Barnard, Ruins of Mrs. Henry's House, Battlefield of Bull Run, 1862. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, New York.

In her 2002 essay on war photography, “Looking at War,” Susan Sontag argued that its introduction into mass media during and after the Civil War was not nearly as important for its “objective” truth-telling powers as for its emotive impact. “[Photographs] don’t help us much to understand,” she wrote. “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”

Sontag’s essay is essentially a meditation on whether war photography can be used to instill in viewers distaste for war. Her verdict: not really. And she is discussing in particular images of suffering, like Brady’s, that illustrate the horrific, inevitable consequences of war, nevermind fancy portraits of handsome soldiers. Today, photographs of war—and everything else, for that matter—have proliferated unlike anyone in the 19th century could have dreamed, and we live in a state of perpetual “war without war” (currently executed as the War on Terror). This alone is potent proof that photographs of war do little to dull our enthusiasm for it, and since photographs themselves do not, as Sontag said, make us understand, their ability to move us is easily subsumed into narratives—even those as benign as one that simply wants to show us how interesting the history of photography is—that convince us that war is an inescapable part of life.

The most troubling thing about “Photography and the American Civil War” is how closely in composition and tone, 150 years later, it reflects war photography’s current role in society. Photographs of horrific suffering are not necessarily powerless in swaying opinion against war, particularly set within the right narrative context and distributed to a large enough audience. This is precisely why the nature of wars fought by the United States has changed to make it as difficult to photograph—despite radical advances in photographic technology—as it was when cameramen lugged around large wooden boxes in horse carts and photos were ruined by the subject’s slightest twitch.

The U.S. military knows it’s not in its best interest for people to see the brutality of war—particularly when a war lacks a convincing moral imperative like ending slavery—so wars are fought in secret, after dark, in far-flung lands. Drones, clandestine prisons, and black ops like the one that killed Osama bin Laden are the modern equivalents of Civil War infantrymen marching behind 16-piece bands and battles on grassy fields. This was the point of Trevor Paglen’s project Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, whose blurry photographs of secret military installations and classified military satellites show how far out of reach war is even from today’s best cameras—not to mention the average American.

If the machinations of modern war are increasingly unphotographable, there is still a tremendous body of work that qualifies as “war photography” by the logic of the Civil War exhibition. Just as thousands of Civil War soldiers had their carte-de-visite portraits taken when the price for the process dropped, one can imagine that there’s hardly a U.S. soldier in service today who hasn’t posed in uniform in front of a loved one’s smartphone and had his or her visage uploaded to Instagram or Facebook. An uncountable number of smiling soldiers permeate social media networks, while images of war that can truly shock us in this desensitized age—like those from Abu Ghraib or of U.S. soldiers urinating on or posing with corpses in Afghanistan—are few and far between. A sampling of contemporary war photographs by type and percentage would likely resemble the makeup of “Photography and the American Civil War”: mostly our beloved, brave boys, with a few shots of violence to remind us that war is serious business.

In one of the exhibition’s most gruesome sections, a collection of photographs by doctors of soldiers being treated for grisly wounds, a quote from Robert E. Lee reminds us, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” As psychopathic as he sounds, Lee has a point, and there perhaps still exists a way in which citizens who pay for war—with their taxes and the lives of their sons, wives, cousins, and neighbors—might be convinced that it is hardly ever worth the cost. But photographs alone, during the Civil War or now, do not transmit to us that sense of terribleness. With that, we are left to feel only fondness, which seems precisely what “Photography and the American Civil War” wants us to feel for war—in the past, present, and future.

Editor's Note

“Photography and the American Civil War” on view through May 4 at the New Orleans Museum of Art (One Collins Diboll Circle) in New Orleans.