Friday, August 17, 2012

America's Civil War: Selections from the Drapkin and Larry West collections @ FMoPA

In the beginning in 1862, the North thought it would be a short war. It was not to be. Instead it was a long and bloody event. Photography was only twenty-two years old and one of the many technological wonders of the age. Coffee table books of exotic locales and people held readers spellbound in the way the Internet did two decades ago.

On Opening Night
The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is currently showing America's Civil War: Selections from the Drapkin Collection and Larry West. On opening night, FMoPA was abuzz with people. As usual, I studied the works, met the collectors and conversed with a variety of people. The most amazing thing about that evening, besides the pictures, was how many of the viewers were intimately familiar and strongly opinionated about the Civil War. It wasn't just older gentlemen. I listened to a woman in her early twenties identify every general in a photograph of Lincoln visiting them in the field, much like GW Bush visiting the troops in Iraq. She knew why Lincoln had gone there, too. While listening to these educated people, another thing stood out: The ebbing pain in the heritage of a defeated culture a century-and-a-half later.

When the war began, Matthew Brady, who owned several successful photo studios, used his connection with Mr. Pinkerton to get permission from Lincoln to photograph the war. His intent was not journalistic, documentarian nor artistic. It was mainly commercial. He thought people would want to buy large books of Civil War pictures after the war. Instead, the enterprise would prove to be his financial undoing. He had to sell all his pictures for very little, the money went to his creditors, and he died broke and broken, living in his daughter's house. The photographs in this show are by Alexander Gardner, who managed Brady's Washingtn DC studio, and his assistants. They began working under Brady, but Gardner resented that Brady would not give them credit for the photographs. He broke away from Brady in November, 1862, taking others from the studio.

Looking at these war photographs, there is one crucial thing missing that is now taken for granted in this type of image: Action. The process used, collodion on glass (AKA wet-plate), required prepared chemistry, multiple steps to prepare the plate for exposure, and due to the low sensitivity of the materials to light, long exposures of more than one second. In many of the images one can see the "ghosts" of people that moved or turned their heads during the exposure. The result of all this is that we see before and after pictures of military encounters, but not during. One sees men assembled before battle, their bloated bodies strewn on a battlefield, placid scenes and buildings, or ruins photographed in a manner of the neo-classicist painters. War is left to the imagination.

Alexander Gardner, "Scouts and Guides to the Army of the Potomac"

Ten men around a teepee, none of them in uniform. The men in this photograph were with the Secret Service Dept. of the Army of the Potomac (the Union Army) under Allen Pinkerton. They went in first, facing some of the most dangerous situations and proved remarkably effective. Unlike today's spies, they often brought back vegetables and chickens when they could. Note their body language, relaxed, confident, at ease in their space. Gardner, with his extensive experience in posing groups in the studio made an excellent group portrait. With the ubiquiousness of photography today, we don't see portraits of spies any more.
Alexander Gardner, "Scene in Pleasant Valley Maryland"

Most of the prints in the show are really pages unbound from Gardner's books. Here, you can see how they looked en situ. The house belonged to a Mrs. Lee. The two officers are members of Gen. Mc Clellan and Burnside's staff. Note the Fall leaves on the ground. This was taken in October, after the battle of Antietam, where 90,000 men died in one day. Lincoln had just announced the Emancipation Proclamation. The most extraordinary thing about this image is the woman at viewer's left. Note the black woman. Her image is the only one of its kind in all of Gardner's Civil War photographs. She is literally and figuratively marginalized, and the only person depicted standing on the ground. Gardner did not include her by chance. He was a staunch abolitionist.
Alexander Gardner, "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter"

A sniper lies dead in his nest, face turned towards the camera, his rifle beautifully propped against the stones he piled up earlier between two boulders to protect himself. A poignant, dramatic narrative scene that conveyed a story well. It almost looks like a religious painting. One problem is that the man appears in another Gardner picture from the same day, dead in the field. These were studio photographers, used to staging and posing people and things to tell effective stories and maximize visual impact. Gardner, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, his assistant and one of the best American photographers that ever lived, and a third man moved this corpse about fifty yards to this "nest", and very likely posed the rifle as well. Understand that the ethics of the day did not forbid this. 

From the Larry West collection.
The Larry West collection, also part of this exhibit, is in a beautiful, bespoke glass case, perhaps the first with highly controllable LED lighting to lower heat, thus damage. The West Collection consists of twenty pieces, including photo-decorative accessories from the Civil War. Pendants, pins, lockets, items like a mourning sewing box. and much more. This is the first exhibit of many to come for this collection in the State of Florida.

Remember, photography was new and exciting, and its value as a mnemonic fetish and personal talisman was considerable.My favorite in that exhibit is a man's cane, made of twisted wood, with a locket at the top, where the user's hand would rest, with two images in it.

Years ago, I was being checked out at Home Depot by a cashier, and I noticed a photograph on the back side of her I.D. badge. I asked her about it, and it was a photograph of her daughter. She said "I like having her close to my heart all day". I suspect it was the same with the wearers of the jewelry in the West collection.

Above is a photo of the cover of one of the two volumes of Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War. It included 100 albumen silver prints. He gave credit to every photographer, assistant and printer. It is the model for credit in photography to this day.

Congratulations to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Dr. Drapkin and Larry West for bringing all of this to Tampa.

--- Luis


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