The Genesis of Photojournalism

One day in 1897, the rap of an auction-house gavel fetched novice photo collector Frederick Hill Meserve a thick package wrapped in brown paper and string. Meserve’s successful $1.10 bid was a sight-unseen purchase (the auction catalogue description said merely “photographs”), but for such a man on a mission, it was a worthy gamble.

He was seeking Civil War-era photographs to illustrate the wartime memoirs which his father, Union army veteran William Meserve, was then writing. What Meserve didn’t realize was that the contents of his plain paper package, bought for pennies, was a small piece of a priceless national treasure. He had unearthed the work of a master: Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

“I had my first experience of the sensation of intoxication … that comes from the possession of a rare find,” Meserve later said. “I had not the knowledge necessary for full appreciation of the 100 or more exquisite salt prints that I unwrapped, soft brown in color and unglazed. But their clarity and beauty was so evident that I was stirred.”

Historians of photography consider Brady’s images some of the most significant and most beautiful of the many thousands created during the American Civil War. He was only the best-known public face of legions of lesser-known or even anonymous cameramen of the Civil War generation, men like Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, Andrew J. Russell, John Reekie, and George Barnard in the North, and George S. Cook, Michael Miley, Julian Vannerson and A.D. Lytle in the South.

Collectively, their pioneering work made America’s Civil War the first conflict in world history to be fully documented in photographs. They liberated the camera from the narrow confines of the commercial photography studio, and proved photography’s usefulness in the arena of public life as a major information medium equal to that of the written word.

Soldiers and civilians of the Civil War period put the photograph to a myriad of novel uses (medicine, espionage, the documenting of official government and military activities). None, though, had greater impact on the future of American society than the nascent art of photojournalism.

Photography arrived in America at the dawn of a new era of tremendous technological innovation and change. New inventions like the telegraph, steam power, and the railroad were shrinking the world in which the average individual American lived, giving faraway events a greater impact on daily life. As ever more curious Americans grew hungry for knowledge of the outside world, they embraced photography as a powerful tool for promoting the growth of knowledge and the moral progress of American society.

By the late 1850s, two fortuitous innovations converged to seal the marriage of journalism and photography. A new, wet-plate collodion developing process (introduced in 1851) enabled photographers to reproduce infinite numbers of positive images from a single negative faster and more cheaply than before. Mass-distribution illustrated newspapers such as Leslie’s Illustrated (founded 1855) and Harper’s Weekly (founded 1857), arrived soon after to put photographs (copied in the form of engravings or line drawings) in front of the greatest mass audience such images had yet achieved.

Recognizing the potential communicative power of this new mass media tool in crafting a political candidacy, Abraham Lincoln sat for his portrait at the New York studio of Mathew Brady on February 27, 1860, just hours before he was to give his famous speech at the Cooper Union. The photograph appeared in Harper’s Weekly as a woodcut illustration, then in the form of 100,000 cartes-de-visite (small, wallet-sized images printed on thick card stock) which Republican campaign managers distributed throughout the rest of the campaign. So great was the influence of Brady’s campaign images that Brady would later report Lincoln as saying “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”

War followed hard on the heels of Lincoln’s election. Forward-looking American photographers were already geared up and ready to capture in photos for posterity what they intuitively grasped as a historic moment for the nation. The most ambitious among them conceived a vision to create an unprecedentedly comprehensive photographic record of war for the first time ever.

Few were more ambitious in this than Mathew B. Brady, the man Civil War photograph collector Philip Kunhardt called “the first magazine photographer.” Throughout the 1840s and ’50s, Brady had established himself in popular imagination as the grand impresario of the celebrity machine of his day by setting himself up as the photographer to the rich and famous. He created a “national portrait gallery,” a permanent collection of famous faces that would successfully record for future generations the look of mid-19th-century America.

The idea of making a complete photographic record of the coming conflict certainly did not originate with Brady alone. Nonetheless, his relentless (and successful) self-promotion, public notoriety, and the social connections and business it brought, gave him the material resources needed to truly pull it off. It also afforded Brady a very visible, public platform for articulating this vision held by many lesser-known but like-minded photographers.

For photography to establish itself as a visual war reporting medium in its own right, the first order of business would have to be a parting of ways from the romantic, antiseptic traditions of 19th-century military art (all the heroism, none of the horrors of war), the chief influence on photography up to then. Photographs from 1861 and much of 1862 show a bold, strong, heroic Union Army in dress parade mode: tall men striking Napoleonic poses in their handsome, immaculate uniforms, showing off their gold braid and epaulets, or standing proudly with their new muskets, or next to their artillery pieces.

Indeed, to achieve a more mature, objective journalistic vision, pictorial war reporters would have to begin to learn to “tell it like it was.” As few models of visual war reportage then existed, the evolution of war photography’s founding vision would require changes in thinking, and experimentation, plus trial and error. The first task, though, would be to prove that photographing on the battlefield could be done at all.

An opportunity came with the First Battle of Manassas in July, 1861 for Mathew Brady and his assistants. Driving two portable darkroom wagons (nicknamed by union troops as “whatsit wagons”) loaded with cameras, tripods, photographic plates, and bottles of chemicals into the thick of the fray, they nearly lost all their equipment during two hasty Union withdrawals. During the night, Brady got lost in the woods and spent a wet night in his whatsit wagon, stumbling wet and bedraggled back into Washington the next day. A rocky start, but nonetheless, Brady had gotten his pictures.

Brady’s difficulties at 1st Manassas foreshadowed the difficulties of working in theaters of combat all photographers would have to endure throughout the war. While their status as non-combatants relieved them of the compulsions of hazardous military duty, their presence on the battlefield put them in danger of catching a stray bullet from enemy lines or from enemy sniper fire, coming under artillery fire, or getting swept up in a sudden retreat. On June 21, 1864 outside Petersburg, Mathew Brady asked the captain in command of an artillery battery to simulate the act of firing for the camera. The activity of the artillery battery prompted the rebels to open fire for real.

Photographers also could face the threat of capture. On July 5, 1863, while on the way to photograph the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, Alexander Gardner was taken prisoner for a few hours by members of General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Stuart’s troopers soon released Gardner, and afterwards, Gardner, accompanied by photographers Timothy O’Sullivan and James Gibson returned to photograph the scene of his late capture.

The state of photographic technology of the day itself created difficulties, as cameras were very large, bulky, and heavy. Developing negatives through the wetplate collodion process had to be done within minutes of exposure. In the field, that meant perching on the wagon’s back step to stoop over in darkness of a cramped wagon, dipping sheets of glass into a tank in a crudely light-proofed developing chamger. The hard work of exposure and development could all be for naught, if bursting shells made the wagon horse bolt, tipping over the wagon and smashing the negatives.

Field cameras in the 1860s, with their long exposure times, were incapable of capturing motion, an indispensable element of warfare. Photographers could not capture combat in progress, only suggest it through photographing stationary things under their control: landscapes, the dead, soldiers standing at attention, and sit-down portraits.

The hardships of battlefield work nonetheless did not deter the legions of enterprising photographers from their task. In fact, since Brady’s initial success in field operations at 1st Manassas showed that it could be done, multitudes of other photographers were inspired to follow suit.

Not all occupational hazards to the photographer were experienced on the battlefield. In March 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant visited Mathew Brady at his Washington studios accompanied by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, just after Grant had arrived in the city to receive command of Army of Potomac. Noticing that the light coming into the studio had begun to fade, Brady sent an associate up to the roof to draw the shades back from skylight. Unfortunately, the assistant was so nervous that he put his foot through the skylight, sending shower of glass down into the room below, some splinters missing Grant’s head by mere inches. While the watching Secretary Stanton blanched, Grant hardly flinched, and the sitting continued on. As they were leaving, Stanton ordered Brady to keep the incident under wraps, lest the public would think it had been an assassination attempt.

Following the rocky start at Manassas, photographs taken in the months between Ft. Sumter and Antietam began to reveal the first glimmers of visual realism. Photographers had begun paying attention to the organizational complexity of the army, as being the domain of technicians, engineers, cooks and teamsters as well as generals in gold braid and fighting men. Photographic coverage of the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862 highlighted another extremely important trend: a shift towards openly depicting the naked ugliness and horror of war. For the first time, photographers depicted the dead, the wounded and the sick.

Brady’s New York gallery exhibit of Alexander Gardner and James Gibson’s pictures later in 1862, “The Dead of Antietam,” drew large crowds who were curious to stare into the faces of these anonymous dead. Gardner and Gibson’s pictures teem with the swollen, spread-eagled, prostrate corpses of dead soldiers, dead horses, open graves, Union soldiers on burial detail, and the like. A New York Times review reported that Brady’s photos had “done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something like it.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, author and son of a future Supreme Court Justice, viewed the exhibit months after he himself had gone to search the Antietam battlefield for his son, a participant in the battle. In an Atlantic Monthly article in July 1863, Holmes advised, “Let him who wishes to know what war is like look at this series of illustrations … It is well enough for some Baron Gros or Horace Vernet to please an imperial master with fanciful portraits of what they are supposed to be. The honest sunshine … gives us … some conception of what a repulsive, sickening, hideous thing it is, this dashing together of two frantic mobs to which we give the name of armies.”

Brady’s exhibit proved to be a milestone in the use of the photograph to tell the story of catastrophic public events. Not incidentally, it also demonstrated the power of photographs to simultaneously shock, fascinate and generate business.

In the Civil War era, as much as in our own times, scooping competitors by getting the big story first lent a certain prestige (and brought big business) to those writers who could pull it off. Now that the illustrated weekly newspapers had created a profitable niche for photographers in the world of journalism, photographers followed suit. Thus, when word of the immense battle in progress at Gettysburg filtered into the photographing communities in the North in July 1863, the news touched off a race to beat all comers to the scene and get the best pictures.

Alexander Gardner, along with Timothy O’Sullivan and James Gibson, got there first having left Washington immediately after hearing word of the battle. Gardner had by now left the Brady stable to go into business for himself, taking many former Brady associates with him. Gardner and Brady most likely parted way on friendly terms, but the two photographers were now competitors.

Gardner, O’Sullivan and Gibson took many pictures of dead soldiers, breastworks and battlefield locations. Unfortunately, Gardner completely overlooked or did not see other important landmarks of the battle. He had arrived too soon to acquire the services of any reliable guide, who might have identified these landmarks for him.

When Mathew Brady arrived a week later, he did have the advantage of battlefield guides, although his pictures, while they illustrated all the important battlefield landmarks (and consequently got the public exposure in the illustrated weeklies), they lacked the dramatic impact of Gardner’s pictures of the dead.

Gardner’s Gettysburg pictures may constitute history’s first, well-documented instance of photo-manipulation by journalists. Sharp-eyed photo historians who have examined them have spotted a Confederate soldier that appears in more than one post-mortem pose in multiple locations. Gardner and his assistants apparently dragged the dead man featured in his famous picture, “Dead Confederate Sharpshooter” at Devil’s Den, to a rock enclosure dozens of yards away, and, putting his knapsack under his head and his rifle against the rocks, shot another series of pictures. In another picture of a Confederate casualty, Gardner added a rifle and a severed hand as props. The doctoring of such images raised a controversy in after years that continues to bedevil photojournalists even today in the age of Photoshop: whether or not fiddling with the reality captured in the viewfinder to suit one’s artistic vision in order to express a greater truth warps the truth in the process.

The maturity of visual war reportage turned another corner with the coming of the last major turning point in the war itself: the appointment of General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of Union Armies. Grant took into the new job a cool, no-nonsense style of leadership that departed sharply from the leadership style of most of his predecessors. The new images photographers were taking of Grant at work showed a commander seemingly unconcerned with public image, in stark contrast to predecessors like Gen. George McLellan (famous for commissioning photographs of himself in poses consciously imitative of a triumphant Napoleon Bonaparte from a half century earlier). One portrait showed him leaning against a tree, only two buttons holding his vest together, a worried frown on his face. Here was an image of a commander concerned not with his public image but on the immediate task at hand: winning the war.

With this change in the attitude in army leadership came a radical shift in army tactics. The conflict now morphed into a war of grinding attrition that sought to utilize superior resources in men and material to destroy the substance and morale of Confederate army.

The massive buildup of the stuff of war, and the fearful casualties and mass destruction typifies the photographs of this period. There are pictures of Union depots at City Point in southern Virginia bursting with supplies, contrasted with starving under-supplied Confederates, barefoot boys lying face down in mud where they had been killed in the Confederate trenches at Fort Malone. We see men in the trenches and bomb-proofs at Petersburg, the choking dusts of summer, the drenching summer rains that filled trenches, men under fire from snipers.

A year later, it was all over, and by April 1865, Union troops had seized a war-ravaged Richmond. Every photographer who was anybody, Gardner and Brady and their associates, went down to photograph the widespread destruction wreaked by fleeing Confederates upon the former rebel capital.

On April 16, 1865, only a week after the signing of the surrender at Appomattox, Brady photographed Robert E. Lee in uniform on the back porch of his home in Richmond. Brady recalled in later years that conventional wisdom held that getting Lee to sit for his portrait so soon after his defeat would be impossible. Undeterred and anxious to seize the historic moment, Brady overcame Lee’s initial reluctance, partly through the helpful intervention of Mrs. Lee, as well as through Lee’s earlier acquaintance with Brady.

In the North, images of Southern leaders such as Lee and Jefferson Davis had been few and far between during the war. During the fighting, rumor had it that Mathew Brady would occasionally slip through enemy lines and return with photographs of Confederate generals and statesmen. In actual fact, Brady’s Washington studio photographed many Confederate politicians and generals both before and after the war, and he was able to obtain negatives or copy photos of Confederate notables from other sources.

The circumstances of war starved the Confederacy of the material resources which Southern photographers would have needed to make a comprehensive portrait of war as their Northern counterparts were doing. The blockade of southern ports, and the Confederacy’s general economic straits greatly restricted the number of photos made from a southern perspective, although some southern photographers, such as George Cook, managed to secure supplies from blockade runners (Cook also continued to supply a dozen or so other southern photographers at least through 1863).

Many other images produced by Southerners suffered the ravages of fighting in the southern states, taking the number down even further. It is even said that disappointment in the South at the end of the war was so strong that many southern photographers destroyed all their negatives rather than endure the strain of brooding over the (an interesting, but a myth ultimately unconfirmed by anecdotal evidence).

No photographers traveled with Confederate armies to make documentary photos in the fashion of Gardner and Brady, but photography studios were common in Southern cities, towns, and military camps, as they were in the North. “Confederate photography” consisted largely of the usual collection of ambrotype and tintype portraits of soldiers and their families, and portraits of Confederate leaders, assembled as collections of cartes-de-visite in albums.

Despite their difficult circumstances, Southern photography did produce a few stars, chief among them George S. Cook. Born in Connecticut, Cook settled in Charleston, South Carolina before the war. He was on hand to capture portraits of Major Anderson during the Fort Sumter crisis in early 1861. Cook later gained the distinction of having taken the first combat action photographs when he captured two photographs of enemy ironclads in action in Charleston Harbor on September 8, 1863. Cook took the photos from the parapet of Fort Sumter on a day when 46 Union shells fell into the fort. Except on that occasion and a couple of others, Cook remained in his Charleston studio during the war, and did not take documentary photographs. Sometime in 1864, he lost all of his massive collection of studio negatives to fire, including all of his portraits of Confederate notables. All of the negatives from his trips into the field, including his combat action photographs, survived, though.

While the armistice signed by Generals Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee halted the clash of armies on April 9, 1865, the last shot of the American Civil War was fired five days later on April 14: the day Confederate assassin John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln. Of all the events which photographers covered throughout the course of the war, it is the Lincoln assassination that fused together so many of the lessons learned into the kernel of what we may call photojournalism.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Alexander Gardner decided to document the key locations in the incident: Ford’s theater (showing the swags of black muslin on the façade, the box where Lincoln was murdered), the stables of John C. Howard where Booth had kept his horse, the telegraph office from which the world was first informed of Lincoln’s death, and the Navy Yard Bridge across the Anacostia River where Booth had escaped from the District of Columbia into Maryland.

Colonel Lafayette Baker, the Chief of the Secret Service who had been put in charge of the murder investigation, subsequently asked Gardner to copy photos of John Surratt, Booth and David Herold, to make a “Wanted” poster on April 20.

After Booth’s death in a shootout with federal soldiers, Gardner, along with his associate Timothy O’Sullivan, was again commissioned by the government to be present at John Wilkes Booth’s autopsy aboard the federal ironclad USS Montauk anchored at the Washington Navy Yard. According to the New York Tribune, a photograph of Booth’s body was taken on April 28. On May 13, Harper’s Weekly published an engraving possibly based on this photo.

The Booth autopsy photo was never seen again, its disappearance certainly one of the first recorded instances of government censorship of a photograph. According to instructions, the one print and one negative were delivered to Colonel Baker at the War Department later that same day, and were never seen again. Later, Secretary of War Stanton denied that any picture had been taken. Historians have speculated that the once picture’s usefulness for identification purposes was over, the government had it destroyed to prevent its general circulation, making Booth a martyr.

But that was not the only instance of photographic censorship at the end of the war. While Lincoln was lying in state in New York City on April 24, 1865, Jeremiah Gurney received permission to photograph the casket and body. When Stanton learned in newspapers of the photograph, he angrily demanded that all negatives and prints be destroyed. At least one print, however, came into Stanton’s hands. It was apparently sent to him as part of an effort to try to get him to change his mind, considering the historic nature of the photographs. Stanton did not destroy that print and kept it in his possession for the rest of his life. Stanton’s son later sent it to Lincoln’s personal secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay. The print ended up in the Hay-Nicolay papers at the Illinois State Historical Society, but remained unknown until it was rediscovered at the library by a 14-year-old budding Lincoln scholar, Ronald Rietveld, on July 20, 1952.

Later in the summer of 1865, the government brought in Gardner and his associate Timothy O’Sullivan to photograph the execution of the assassination conspirators on July 7, 1865. Gardner and O’Sullivan shot a series of images, beginning with the empty scaffold, then moving on to the conspirators and officials climbing up on the scaffold, and ending with the hanging. It was the most extensive photographic picture story recording an event to date. It captured a complex, significant sequence of events in images that today we would call a picture essay, comprehensive event coverage that historians consider to be a mark of the coming of age of the photojournalistic approach.

The war was now over, but the work of recording history with the camera went on. Many photographers who had cut their teeth on the battlefields in the East now headed into the West to document the taming of the frontier. There would be other wars to cover, taking a cue from the techniques of the Civil War generation and building on the foundation they had laid.

Photographers would have better, more portable, faster-shooting equipment. By the late 19th century, the half-tone process (a way of reproducing quickly and cheaply the photograph itself in newspapers and magazines) put the fruits of their work in front of larger and larger audiences.

Today, news photos in print publications (and now online) are everywhere. Print news coverage without them is unimaginable. When we open up a newspaper to see the patchwork quilt of photos and text, we are witnessing the legacy of these American cameramen of the 1860s. They sought only to capture a moment in time, but in the end, their pioneering work sealed the marriage of print journalism and photography in popular imagination and industry practice.

Research historian, published writer/author, copy editor, photographer, world traveler. Oh yeah … I’m an archaeology fan, too.

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