Alexander Gardner Saw Himself as an Artist, Crafting the Image of War in All Its Brutality

The National Portrait Gallery’s new show on the Civil War photographer rediscovers the full significance of Gardner’s career

Gardner took this photograph of Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 after Lincoln gave him command of all the Union armies. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In Scouts and Guides to the Army of the Potomac, taken in 1862 in New Brunswick, Maryland, Gardner documented specialized units of the Union Army. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Gardner's photograph of Walt Whitman among a group of unidentified companions was taken when Whitman came to Washington from New York City in search of his brother George, who had been wounded on December 13, 1862, at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio
An 1862 hand-painted stereograph by Gardner entitled View on Battle Field of Antietam Collection of Bob Zeller
Indian Peace Commissioners in council with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho at Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory in 1868. William T. Sherman Collection of Alexander Gardner Photographs (P15390), NMAI
Gardner and other local Washington photographers were commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution to make portraits of visiting Indian delegates, including in 1867 the Ihanktonwan Nakota delegates Long Foot and Little Bird. William T. Sherman Collection of Alexander Gardner Photographs (P10149), NMAI
The title Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, of this Gardner photograph depicting railroad construction is from the final stanza of a 1726 poem by Bishop George Berkeley. William T. Sherman Collection of Alexander Gardner Photographs (P10134), NMAI
Lakota delegates Medicine Bull, Iron Nation, and Yellow Hawk with their Agent-Interpreter, Washington, D.C., 1867 Left to right: Medicine Bull, unidentified interpreter, Iron Nation and Yellow Hawk William T. Sherman Collection of Alexander Gardner Photographs (P10139), NMAI
A portrait of Alexander Gardner taken by his brother James, c. 1863-1865 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
This Gardner portrait of Abraham Lincoln was taken on February 24, 1861, just before his inauguration on March 4. Lincoln was said to be hiding his right hand because it was swollen from shaking so many hands. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In this self-portrait taken at Mathew Brady’s Washington studio, Gardner sports buckskins and a fur hat. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gardner's 1862 photograph entitled Antietam Bridge, Maryland National Archives, Washington, D.C.
After the covert activities of southern sympathizer Rose O'Neal Greenhow were uncovered, she was placed under house arrest and Gardner took this photograph after “Rebel Rose” and her daughter, Little Rose, were transferred to the Old Capitol Prison in 1862. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
On February 5, 1865, Lincoln had a series of photographs taken at Gardner’s studio. At some point, possibly when the glass-plate negative was heated to receive a coat of varnish, a crack appeared in the upper half of the plate. Gardner pulled a single print and then discarded the plate, so only one such portrait exists. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gardner made this image during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign of Philip Sheridan (standing to the left) with cavalry officer Wesley Merritt; George Crook, who had an independent force in western Virginia before joining Sheridan’s army; Sheridan’s chief of staff James W. Forsyth and George A. Custer. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gardner captured the president at the U.S. Capitol for his March 4, 1865 photograph entitled, Abraham Lincoln Delivering His Second Inaugural Address as President of the United States, Washington, D.C.. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Gardner took this image ten days before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, Inc., Chicago, Illinois
In the 1863 Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gardner moved the body of Confederate casualty to create a narrative scene. Collection of Ron Perisho
This Gardner photograph of dead confederate soldiers in a ditch called "Bloody Lane" was probably taken on September 19, 1862, during the second, midday phase of the Union assault on Lee’s defensive line. Collection of Bob Zeller
The title of Gardner's photograph (taken with Timothy O'Sullivan) Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 1863 was added later to capitalize on the famous general's heroism. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Gardner took this image Completely Silenced: Dead Confederate Artillerymen, as they lay around their battery after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. The battle is still considered one of America's bloodiest fights with more than 25,000 casualties. Collection of Bob Zeller
On July 7, 1865 Gardner was the only photographer permitted for the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators—Mary Surrat, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt. Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis; Daniel R. Weinberg Lincoln Conspirators Collection

Before Alexander Gardner made the most memorable photographs of the American Civil War, he had a hard time making up his mind. As a young man in Scotland, he had been an apprentice jeweler. Then he became editor and publisher of a Glasgow newspaper. In 1856, when he came to America, he was planning to start a socialist cooperative in unsettled Iowa. But then, in New York, he found his life's work.

Before leaving home, he had seen and admired photographs by Mathew Brady, who was already famous and prosperous as a portraitist of American presidents and statesmen. It was Brady that likely paid Gardner's passage to New York and soon after arriving, he went to visit the famous photographer's studio and decided to stay.

Gardner was so successful there that Brady sent him to manage his Washington, D.C., studio, and soon after that, he was photographing Abraham Lincoln as the owner of his own studio, and about to produce his historic images of the nation's struggle. But there was more—after Appomattox, unknown to most of those who have praised his groundbreaking photographs of the war, he went on to record the westward march of the railroads and the Native American tribes scattering around them.

When the Civil War began, Mathew Brady sent more than 20 assistants into the field to follow the Union army. All of their work, including that of Gardner and the talented Timothy O'Sullivan, was issued with the credit line of the Brady studio. Thus the public assumed that Brady himself had lugged the fragile wagonload of equipment into the field, focused the big boxy camera and captured the images. Indeed, sometimes he had. But beginning with the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Gardner determined to take a step beyond his boss and his colleagues.

When he walked the field of Antietam, he realized that beyond the army and the overcrowded hospitals, the nation had never seen the brutal results of what was then modern warfare. With his primitive equipment, including glass plates, chemicals mixed by hand and a portable darkroom, he could not capture moving images or work effectively in low light. So he took his camera to the ditches and fields where thousands had fought and died, and pictured them as they lay sprawled at the moment of death. In the history of warfare, it had never been done before.

The impact on those who viewed Gardner’s photos was just what he hoped. The New York Times said in 1862, "Mr. Brady has 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 dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. . . .By the aid of the magnifying glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished."

After that, Gardner broke with Brady, and in May of 1863, he opened his own studio at 7th and D Streets in Washington. He was on the field again at Gettysburg, and again he portrayed the grisly results of massed cannon and musketry. And there, perhaps for the only time, he seems to have tried to improve upon the hard facts before him. In the album he titled Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, he featured one image titled "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter."

It pictured a dead Confederate soldier in a rocky den, with his weapon propped nearby. Photographic historian William Frassanito has compared it to other images and believes that Gardner moved that body to a more dramatic hiding place to make the famous photo. Taking such license would blend with the dramatic way his album mused over the fallen soldier: "Was he delirious with agony, or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer as the field of carnage faded before him? What visions, of loved ones far away, may have hovered above his stony pillow?'

Significantly, as illustrated by that image and description, Gardner's book spoke of himself as "the artist." Not the photographer, journalist or artisan, but the artist, who is by definition the creator, the designer, the composer of a work. But of course rearranging reality is not necessary to tell a gripping story, as he showed conspicuously after the Lincoln assassination. First he made finely focused portraits that caught the character of many of the surviving conspirators (much earlier in 1863, he had done the slain assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth). Then, on the day of execution, he pictured the four—Mary Surrat, David Herold, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt—standing as if posing on the scaffold, while their hoods and ropes were adjusted. Then their four bodies are seen dangling below while spectators look on from the high wall of the Washington Arsenal—as fitting a last scene as any artist might imagine.

After all Gardner had seen and accomplished, the rest of his career was bound to be anticlimax, but he was only 43 years old, and soon took on new challenges. In Washington, he photographed Native American chieftains and their families when they came to sign treaties that would give the government control over most of their ancient lands. Then he headed west.

In 1867, Gardner was appointed chief photographer for the eastern division of the Union Pacific Railway, a road later called the Kansas Pacific. Starting from St. Louis, he traveled with surveyors across Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and on to California. In their long, laborious trek, he and his crew documented far landscapes, trails, rivers, tribes, villages and forts that had never been photographed before. At Fort Laramie in Wyoming, he pictured the far-reaching treaty negotiations between the government and the Oglala, Miniconjou, Brulé, Yanktonai, and Arapaho Indians. This entire historic series was published in 1869 in a portfolio called Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad  (Route of the 35th Parallel).

Those rare pictures and the whole expanse of Gardner’s career are now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in a show entitled “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872." Among the dozens of images included are not only his war pictures and those of the nation’s westward expansion, but the famous “cracked-plate” image that was among the last photographs of a war-weary Abraham Lincoln. With this show, which will run into next March, the gallery is recognizing a body of photography—of this unique art—unmatched in the nation’s history. 

“Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872” is on view through March 13, 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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