NEW YORK — It’s a commonplace that the Civil War was the first modern military conflict. No previous war had been fought with ironclad ships, rifled artillery, extended trench warfare (the siege of Petersburg), or what we would now describe as total war (Sherman’s March to the Sea). Look at Alexander Gardner’s photograph “Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills, Richmond,” from 1865. If a label substituted “Dresden” or “Warsaw” for “Richmond” and dated the image 80 years later, it would seem utterly plausible.
Gardner’s photograph is one of well over 200 that appear in “Photography and the American Civil War,” a very large and often deeply moving show that runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 2. There are nearly 300 items in all, and that’s not counting the fabric arranged at the entrance to resemble a bivouac tent.
The images offer a reminder that the war’s modernity extended well beyond weaponry and battlefield. No less significant than armaments used and tactics employed was the role of railroads, telegraphy, and the camera.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
Especially the camera. Photographs communicated to civilians the reality of war with an unprecedented immediacy, vividness, and particularity. Just as the French Revolution, with its citizen armies, had changed the relationship of the population as a whole to war, so did photography change the relationship even further. Now an entire nation could visualize, and thus experience, war as never before.
The Civil War wasn’t the first war to be photographed. That distinction belongs to the Crimean War, a decade earlier, where Roger Fenton became the founding father of war photography. Eventually following in his path would be the likes of Robert Capa, David Douglas Duncan, and James Nachtwey.
The Civil War added its own share of distinguished names: Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, George N. Barnard. Mathew Brady, the photographer most commonly associated with the war, acted primarily as entrepreneur, employing two dozen photographers (Gardner, O’Sullivan, and Barnard among them) to document the war.
Photography had been invented barely 20 years before Fort Sumter. The show lets us see how quickly, and thoroughly, the medium had become part of the culture. There are soldiers’ cartes de visite; portrait lockets; tintypes or ambrotype portraits. A board game has squares that bear the faces of Abraham Lincoln and Union generals. A necklace features portraits of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two members of his Cabinet. Political medals, the forerunner of today’s campaign buttons, show candidate portraits.
These many different uses the camera was being put to helped further an unprecedented democraticization of the human image. The war radically accelerated that process. The Times of London reported in August 1862 that “America swarms with the members of the mighty tribe of cameristas, and the civil war has developed their business in the same way that it has given an impetus to the manufacturers of metallic air-tight coffins and embalmers of the dead.”
One is struck by several things here: the lower-casing of “civil war” (for an English audience, the civil war occurred two centuries earlier); the flippant tone; and that word “cameristas.” The key point is the underscoring of photographic omnipresence.
The show opens with adjoining portraits of Lincoln and Davis. It’s a nice touch. There are also portraits of such other Civil War luminaries as Sojourner Truth, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman (wearing a black armband after Lincoln’s death), and John Wilkes Booth (the cause of Sherman’s wearing that armband). There is a Brady self-portrait. But the vast preponderance of people seen are either little known or anonymous — another reminder of that process of visual democratization.
Among the most startling images are those in a gallery devoted to the use of the camera for medical documentation. Reed Brockway Bontecou was a Union Army surgeon and amateur photographer. He used his camera to record patients and medical procedures. The grisliness of the images is tempered by Bontecou’s clinical approach, yet that approach makes them all the more unnerving.
Actually, there’s something clinical about so many of the images here. That’s largely owing to technical requirements. A photograph required long exposure times. So there’s nothing casual or shot-on-the-fly about these images. There couldn’t be. But that’s not necessarily a limitation. The resulting static quality can impart a democratic monumentality. Again and again an overwhelming directness confronts the viewer — and that is the verb. Photographs like O’Sullivan’s “Field Where General Reynolds Fell” or “A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg” have a shocking bluntness. With the latter, the shocking bluntness extends to the title. No title, though, has the bluntness, or conveys the shock, of Andrew Joseph Russell’s “Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia,” from 1863.
It’s just happenstance that “At War With the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston” and the Civil War show overlap. “At War,” which runs through July 28, is being mounted in honor of the Met’s acquisition of three dozen Eggleston prints. Yet it in an odd, ineffable way — and so much about Eggleston’s photography is odd and ineffable — “At War With the Obvious” can be seen as a pendant to the larger show.
All but four of the 41 color photographs in “At War” were taken during the 1970s. During that decade the post-civil-rights South might be said to have finally reentered the Union. Jimmy Carter was elected president. The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd helped make southern rock a national passion. More African-Americans moved to the South than left it. The Confederacy became the eastern half of a new geographic entity called the Sunbelt.
Eggleston is the visual poet laureate of this transformation. His style — blank-faced, nonjudgmental, deceptively alert — was wonderfully suited for capturing a region so clearly different, but not altogether differerent, from its former self. Wonder Bread billboards and oven interiors and tricycles could be found pretty much anywhere during the ’70s. They still can be today. As a catalog of such banal items might suggest, Eggleston has genius for transforming the mundane into the exotic. That’s how he wages that war on obviousness.
But then there are those things Eggleston captures that seem uniquely Southern. Not just a faded Coca-Cola sign but a faded Coca-Cola sign sitting on top of a sign saying “peaches” in bright-orange capital letters followed by an exclamation mark. A beat-up farm truck (with orange accents worthy of that peaches sign). A black woman standing in a field whose lush flatness announces it to be in the Mississippi Delta. The fact that she’s wearing a chartreuse mini-dress announces that it’s the Mississippi Delta in the 1970s.
As a kind of pendant to the pendant, there’s “Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in the Background).” What’s in the background isn’t just a body of water but something like the soul of Southern history. Or maybe that’s in the foreground. A prosperous-looking white man (the sort who’d have servants) stands outside in a dark suit. He has white hair. Behind him stands a black man in a white jacket (the sort a servant would wear). He has black hair. Their positive-negative relationship extends further. Both men slouch slightly with hands in pockets. Their manner seems so casual that they appear unposed — yet the overall effect is of a commentary on race relations so rich in implication and dense with narrative possibility that it could be a still from a film. “Rebirth of a Nation”? “Gone, Gone, Gone With the Wind”? A photograph with a title like “Slave Pen” seems unimaginably distant from this one. Except that it doesn’t.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.