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The Civil War
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Photography had existed for only two decades when the Civil War broke out. From the start the public was fascinated by these pictures that seemed, unlike drawings and paintings, to capture reality. When the war began, hundreds of photographers, both at their studios and in the field, stood poised to cover the conflict. They took countless portraits of common soldiers and sold them in a popular card-size format. They traveled to field headquarters and returned with images of the war's heroes. They even went into the field, bringing with them camera and darkroom for the delicate process of wet-plate photography. They returned with images of war: troops, workers, guns, bridges, buildings, boats, landscapes, and bodies—dead, bloated bodies—but not actual battle because lengthy exposure time (as much as fifteen seconds) would produce only a blur.

Mathew Brady is the name most often associated with photographs of the Civil War. He not only photographed but also employed other photographers and exhibited the works at his galleries in Washington and New York. The first exhibition was of the aftermath of the battle of Antietam, fought in September 1862. A reporter for the New York Times visited the gallery and reported what he saw:

The dead of the battlefield come to us very rarely even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. But Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryard and along the streets he has done something very like it. . . . These pictures have a terrible distinctiveness. By the aid of a magnifying glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son or a brother in the still, lifeless line of bodies that lie ready for the gaping trenches.

After Antietam, Gardner separated from Brady and went into business for himself. He sold folio size (seven by nine inches) prints of his pictures for $1.50 and smaller album cards for 25 cents. Following the war, he would assemble a collection of his photographs, provide written commentary, and produce his Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (1866).


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