We’ve been fortunate to have worked with some of the best editorial photographers in the world — Mary Ellen Mark, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Geof Kern, Martin Schoeller, Ruven Afanador, Brigitte Lacombe, Robert Maxwell, and Anton Corbijn, to name just a few — but thanks to our long-time client, The Civil War Monitor, we’re working with a whole different class of legendary photographers.
Too bad they're all dead.
We missed our opportunity to commission photographers to shoot the Civil War — by more than 150 years. And sources of this imagery are extremely rare. Like other history magazines, the Monitor relies on two primary resources to illustrate its pages. Luckily, the early work of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, and other photographic pioneers has been preserved and catalogued by the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
The American Civil War was the birthplace of photojournalism. For the first time, the gruesome realities of war were brought home to the public, mostly in newspapers and news magazines like Harper's Weekly and The Atlantic (much of it reproduced here), as well as in cartes-de-visite, and a popular 3D-like format called a “stereograph” (below). Millions of these photos were purchased by an audience eager to experience the nature of warfare in a whole new way.
In October 1862, Brady, the "father of photojournalism," opened a first-of-its-kind exhibit at his New York gallery. The show featured the war photography of his associate, Alexander Gardner. “The Dead of Antietam” presented, for the first time, photographs of soldiers killed on the battlefield. The public reacted to the images with absolute horror and fascination. Harper’s Weekly wrote, “Minute as are the features of the dead … you can identify not merely their general outline, but actual expression. This is perfectly horrible, and shows through what tortures the poor victims must have passed before they were relieved from their sufferings.”
“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote The New York Times. “Of all objects of horror one would think the battlefield should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. You will see hushed, reverent groups standing around these [images] of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes.”
Earlier this year, The Civil War Monitor teamed with Mads Madsen of Colorized History — one of the most skilled artists at transforming historic black-and-white photographs into nearly photo-realistic full color — to produce a special portfolio, The Civil War in Color. The publication features over 100 pages of images from James Gibson, Andrew Russell, and George Barnard, as well as Brady, Gardner, and O’Sullivan.
It's a unique glimpse of life — and death — in 1860s America.