April 8, 2011 --
Photographer Matthew Brady and his contemporaries were the world's first true war photographers, taking advantage of a relatively new technology, tools of mass production and the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, one in which more than 620,000 lost their lives. This photograph of a scene in Antietam, Md. shows bodies, possibly moved in order to keep the church in the background. The photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner, who worked for a time as an assistant to Matthew Brady.
MILITARY CHANNEL: America's Civil War
While there were images taken during the Mexican War of 1847 and the Crimean War in 1854, the Civil War saw an explosion of both techniques and photographers. In fact, both armies used photography to document their own soldiers as well as to collect information about enemy forces. This photograph, also by Gardner, documents a dead Confederate sniper in Gettysburg.
New techniques and commercialization led to the flowering of photography just before the Civil War started. The invention of the tintype, which was a metal image, and the ambrotype, printed on glass, allowed for mass production of small photographs usually kept by families in wooden or glass cases. Here, John E. Cummins of the 50th, 99th and 185th Ohio Infantry regiments poses in Union uniform next to a horse.
The second kind of photo was the carte de visite. The carte de visite, or cdv, was also primarily a portrait photograph, except it was made with a glass, wet-plate negative. The negative meant unlimited copies could be created. Prints were made on albumen paper, according to the center. These portraits of generals, statesmen, actors and other celebrities were mass produced and given out like trading cards in an effort to keep up morale. Sergeant Cornelius V. Moore of Company B, 100th New York Volunteers, a sergeant of 39th Illinois Regiment, a corporal of 106th New York Volunteers, and a private of the 11th Vermont Regiment pose in camp scene.
Then there were the battlefield photos taken by Brady, his former employee Alexander Gardner, Confederate photographer George S. Cook and the New York-based E & H.T. Anthony Co. These photographs were often taken with a two-lens camera to produce a stereo view and then printed on paper. Mathew B. Brady appears under fire with a battery before Petersburg, Va., June 21, 1864. Brady is in the foreground, standing next to the wheel of a cannon and wearing a straw hat.
In addition to after-battle shots, there are some of the first photographs of combat. There's the Savage Station field hospital photo taken by one of Brady's assistants, James Gibson in June 1862. This image shows injured Union soldiers waiting for treatment, many of whom were captured a few days after the photo was taken. It is considered by many experts to be one of the first great American war photographs.
Photography also captured a new side of African Americans. For the first time, black soldiers and laborers would be captured on film. In this image, a black servant named "John Henry" was given a uniform and boots for his service with the Union's 3rd Army of the Potomac.