The Face of Battle

Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:53pm

The new exhibition at the Smithsonian Castle proves that no matter how far from us a war resides in time or space, photography can bring us closer to the battlefield. 

“Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront” transports visitors back in time 150 years. The collection of photographs, video and artifacts illustrates the American wartime experience and also the difficult role a national museum plays in a country fractured by war.

Michelle Delaney, a curator at the Smithsonian, described the exhibit as capturing a unique historical moment defined by the explosion of photojournalism.

The Smithsonian Castle opened in 1855, followed closely by the outbreak of war in 1861. It continued to operate throughout the war, despite being located near the epicenter of the country’s conflict. 

Museum Secretary Joseph Henry attempted to maintain neutrality during the Civil War. For the duration, the national flag did not fly in front of the museum. Nor did Henry permit abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass to deliver a lecture at the Smithsonian amphitheater, though President Abraham Lincoln was present at early lectures. 

Today, the windows of the Smithsonian Castle, filled in with images of battlefields, keep visitors to the museum immersed in the 19th century. The diary of Secretary Henry’s daughter lies open to an entry about life in D.C. after Lincoln’s assassination, and albums of civil war photographs adorn the displays.

Although photography was not a novel invention by the 1860s, new technologies in the middle of the century allowed the development of modern photojournalism and the mass distribution of photos for the first time. 

During the war, photographers traveled with soldiers, dodging bullets while racing to develop their prints in the field. Visitors to the exhibit will learn about the techniques of printing photos from glass plate negatives and the immediate effect this new technology had on the American public. 

“It was the first time people were seeing graphic depictions of real dead,” Delaney pointed out. Another new technology was also amplifying the reality of war for the American citizenry: the emergence of 3-D images in an early incarnation of the technology called stereoscopic photography. 

The stereoscope transformed the way the country witnessed war. Today, the technique continues to attract record theater audiences for its ability to engulf viewers in cinematic action. In the 19th century, the technology achieved the same effect, only in sitting rooms instead of cineplexes. 

One of the most interesting components of the exhibit is the collection of stereoscopic images displayed the way they were first intended to be seen, with 3-D tableaus of corpses, prisoners of war and soldiers springing up through the lens of 3-D glasses. 

The availability of easily printed photographs during the war made it possible for those at home to collect albums filled with images of Northern and Southern heroes, as well as their loved ones who were on the front lines. These small, cheaply produced portraits, called carte de visites, were extremely popular worldwide.  

Picture This

Trends in personal collections reflected the events of the times.

After Lincoln’s assassination, the carte de visite of his killer, John Wilkes Booth, became a popular collector’s item. 

The exhibit also identifies this period as when photography became an important part of campaigning, a theme that should resonate with a D.C. audience in these pre-election months. 

Lincoln was the first president to use photography as a campaign tool. Photography infiltrated every aspect of American life, so much so that its influence today is almost invisible. 

Other significant historical moments are visible throughout the exhibition. Several cases feature photographs of
African-Americans. During the Civil War, the effort to document the lives of both Northern and Southern blacks signaled a monumental shift in race relations. 

“Experience Civil War Photography” will be on display through the summer of 2013. The opening of this exhibit marks the countdown to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015.