The View from Here: The Civil War
A visit to “Photography and the American Civil War,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 2, 2013, is a moving experience. From the exhibition entryway (designed to resemble the interior of a battlefield tent) through several succeeding rooms, the show offers many surprises. More important, it becomes an unexpected space for serious reflection—not just on what the photographer Alexander Gardner called “the blank horror and reality of war,” but on the fact, so difficult to grasp for a twenty-first-century American civilian like me, that a war on this scale is not so much a terrible category of experience, undergone by particular individuals, as it is an entire way of life.
The range and scope of the exhibition make this point clear. A show with this title might reasonably lead one to expect famous battlefield images and portraits of familiar figures, and many are here: among the finest is Mathew B. Brady’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln, from February of 1860, three months before Lincoln was nominated as the Republican candidate for President. In this oddly touching picture, we see, not the top-hatted national hero with the beloved creased features and the wisdom of the ages in his eyes, but a young, beardless man with a calmly focused expression and his coat buttons casually undone. He was about to give a seminal antislavery speech (“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it”) at the Cooper Institute in New York later that day.
Though it was a privilege to see original photographs such as this, many others better illuminate the smaller, everyday moments that collectively created the Civil War. A display of portrait lockets and pins, featuring miniature photographs measuring somewhere between thumbnail- and palm-size, speaks to the anonymous thousands of women the troops left behind, adorning themselves each morning with a brother’s, son’s or husband’s picture before facing their daily tasks. A calling-card portrait of Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave and abolitionist, reveals a mighty force to be reckoned with: Sojourner Truth copyrighted this picture in her own name and sold the cards to raise funds for her antislavery activism. The sixty-seven-year-old chose to pose here in a relatively quiet moment: seated, ladylike, with her knitting in her lap. Still, her slightly blurry left hand suggests that she has barely paused to allow the shutter to click before continuing with her ceaseless work; even the simple and mundane activity of knitting has its importance in wartime.
Elsewhere, a startling series of photographs of amputees and other patients testifies to changes in medicine during this period, with the sudden demand for far more battlefield doctors than were originally planned on. Several such photographs were taken by the amputating surgeon himself, a Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, to be used as teaching tools for less experienced fellow-surgeons. Such scant information must have left the doctors as frightened as their patients. But one thing this exhibition makes plain is that the photographs on view were considered trustworthy guides to a new reality, taking hold of the country faster than any single individual could understand. Though we now think routinely of photographs as manipulated, and manipulable, documents, photography was only twenty years old when the Civil War began, and Americans saw these war photographs as the best way to capture and share the absolute truth of their experience.
In her seminal essay “Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death”, Susan Sontag argues persuasively that, among other things, pictures are not enough to convey the events of a war—what is needed instead, she contends, is a narrative, so that we know with absolute specificity what each photograph claims to show: “… [W]hat matters is precisely who is killed and by whom” (83). […] “A portrait that declines to name its subject […] demotes [its subjects] to [a] representative instance […]” (94). This is a fair enough critique. Yet, in the case of an exhibition such as this, one could equally argue that the sheer mass of images—many with specific captions and named subjects, many more with no information at all—helps create its own sort of narrative of the thousands upon thousands of lives shaped, changed and lost through the war. Perhaps the very anonymity of so many of the subjects allows a viewer to engage more with the things that are not explained by the caption or text accompanying a particular photograph.
For instance, the image that has stayed with me is an 1861 photograph by Henry P. Moore, of a group of African-American men on board a ship. The Met’s website explains that the men were “Contrabands”—conscripted former slaves who had escaped the Confederacy and were “no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free.” But this still tells us almost nothing. The picture is carefully composed: the men have removed their caps, and sit with legs out and hands crossed or settled in laps, staggered so each one’s face can be seen. Almost all are neatly dressed in U.S. Navy Seaman’s clothing, and they look serious, holding still for a long exposure in what looks to be glaring sun. But one unexpected detail stands out: a single pair of bare feet, just visible in the far left front row of seated men—they must belong to the second man from the left, in the second row. Why bare feet? Had this man never had any shoes at all, and if so, was that because of his particular experience as a slave? Or was he used to going barefoot, to spare his shoes for special occasions, and did he simply forget to fully dress in his haste to prepare for the photograph? Did the Union Navy just not have enough funds to fully clothe each of these men, or not have enough shoes in his size? Is the fact of the man’s shoelessness a mistake, a shameful problem or merely an ordinary, un-noticed, everyday part of life?
We can’t know, now. In Sontag’s words: “We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is—and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine” (98). But surely the recognition that we can never fully understand or imagine what they went through—those whose lives and deaths we are glimpsing through the pictures in this important exhibition—has tremendous value in itself.