Civil War Photos and High Line

The High Bridge and the former Civil War rail line, now turned into a pedestrian walking trail across the Appomattox River last year by the State of Virginia.

The High Bridge and the former Civil War rail line, now turned into a pedestrian walking trail across the Appomattox River last year by the State of Virginia.

What can you see from the perspective of 150 years after Gettysburg? If you go to Farmville, Virginia, you can experience a tranquil, soaring view of lush greenery 160 feet above the Appomattox River – a railroad trestle that was once burned, chopped, and torn apart in desperation just a few days before Lee’s surrender.

If you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art today or tomorrow, you can see Photography and the American Civil War, a show on the First Floor that snaps you back to the birth of image-making, self-promotion, and day-to-day documentation in a way that makes today’s mania for image-sharing look a little lame in comparison.

Essentially, there were over 2,000 photographers roaming through the North and South during those four years of the Civil War. They produced over 1 million pictures of people, soldiers, current/former slaves, battlefield encampments, and more. Photographers trailed the troops everywhere they went, setting up tented studios on site.

Half of Timothy O’Sullivan’s stereo photo, Farmville, Va. April 1865, High Bridge of the South Side Railroad across the Appomattox. Source: Library of Congress

Half of Timothy O’Sullivan’s stereo photo, Farmville, Va. April 1865, High Bridge of the South Side Railroad across the Appomattox. Source: Library of Congress

As soon as you walk into the tented galleries, you’ll see a dizzying array of new technology and firsts – the first campaign button (Lincoln’s) using photos, the carte de visite mass marketed by Sojourner Truth to raise funds and promote her many social-change initiatives (check it out), stereo photos, albumen silver prints from glass negatives, Matthew Brady’s Union Square photo studio for the rich and famous, and before-and-after panoramas of what was going on at the front (not easy when the medium does not capture motion). But that’s just the first two rooms, so plan about an hour or more for the rest of the show.

Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1865 photograph, High Bridge, Appomattox, Va. from Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War [c1866] Source: Library of Congress

Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1865 photograph, High Bridge, Appomattox, Va. from Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War [c1866] Source: Library of Congress

The photos from this week’s walk across the High Bridge in central Virginia is in stark contrast to the Library of Congress photos of the site in 1865, just after the war ended – a ground-up view of the famous rail bridge that was part of the historic photo-tome produced and marketed to the wealthy by Alexander Gardner and a stereo view of same, produced for the 3-D mass market. See and compare more views of Virginia’s Civil War “high line” with our Flickr photos.

There’s a lot more to the Met’s show than it’s possible to write about here (like the original $100K reward poster for Booth that was the first time photos were used in a perp search) and the fact that Brady never actually went to a battlefield (he sent others).

Matthew Brady’s 1860s studio camera is part of the Met’s show. Source: Lowenthell Family Photography Collection.

Matthew Brady’s 1860s studio camera is part of the Met’s show. Source: Lowenthell Family Photography Collection.

It’s simply one of the best shows that the Met has mounted, and congratulations to curator Jeff Rosenheim for this triumph. He’s written a great blog post and recorded a nice 30-minute video that sums up a lot of his thinking.

Check it out and if you’ve missed it, get your Amtrak ticket and head South: This mind-bending, must-see show is coming to the Gibbes Museum, Charleston, South Carolina (September 27, 2013–January 5, 2014), and the New Orleans Museum of Art (January 31–May 4, 2014).

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