When 'Photos' Took the Pictures


October 22, 1990|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON. — THE 11-HOUR PBS epic ''Civil War'' rightly fascinated the nation; it represents television at its finest. Save for a spatter of lively comment on black participation, and emancipation's role in Northern motivation, there was little in it controversial -- far less, in fact, than such an accounting might have generated half a century ago.

Of particular interest is the fact that 11 hours of engrossing programming was carried in the main by hundreds of black-and-white photographs, broken only by sporadic comment from articulate historians -- Shelby Foote -- and the occasional artsy-craftsy modern TV clip of odd nooks and crannies of battle-sites. (These mostly featured brooks and creeks, choked with fulsome foliage and shrouded by heavy mist -- perhaps intended to give an impression of the undisturbed land before it was swept by battle. They added, alas, little to the narrative). An impressive sense of motion and immediacy was imparted by having the TV camera zoom and pan across the original pictures.

While Civil War photographs have been used time and again in the endless steam of books on that conflict, curiously little is known about the photography of the time, or its limitations in covering war; only the name Matthew Brady survives, and there is a popular impression he took all Civil War photographs. Only in the 1960s did William A. Frassanito (fascinated by photo analysis since childhood) start a single-handed, exhaustive analysis of Civil War photography, publishing (to date) three astonishing volumes -- ''Antietam,'' ''Gettysburg'' and ''Grant and Lee'' -- on his findings.

The first photograph of all (a blurred, eight-hour exposure of French roof-tops) dates from 1826. The first human was photographed in 1839 -- a man having his boots shined. Only he happened to stand still during a minutes-long exposure of a bustling Paris street; everyone else, and the horse-drawn traffic, blurred, and the street appears empty.

There were four or five photographs of Mexican War staff officers made in 1846; many of the Crimean War in 1854 (by Roger Fenton), and of the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857.

By 1861, photography was big business. Everyone wanted a daguerreotype or ambrotype for their cartes de visite; they wanted portraits of actors, actresses and assorted notabilities, and half the drawing rooms in America featured a stereoscope and boxes of stereoptic slides -- travel scenes from distant (and then almost unattainable) lands, for which there was a tremendous market. Men like Brady had impressive studios and issued frequent catalogs of their wares.

When the Civil War broke out, there was a huge demand for material. Newly enlisted soldiers flocked by the thousand to have their portraits made, often brandishing a hand gun and a ferocious Bowie knife (soon discarded in the field). Brady and others sent their minions into the field. Photographers, not the photographs, were known as ''photos.''

Brady took remarkably few pictures himself (on his few visits to battle sites he was careful to have himself portrayed in the pictures his ''photos'' took); he generally stayed in Washington to manage the marketing. His best ''photos'' were Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan; in 1862 Gardner opened his own firm and lured O'Sullivan away from Brady.

Photography at the time required preparing an 8-by-10-inch glass plate in a dark room (usually built into a wagon), and then exposing it within the next five minutes in a bulky tripod-mounted camera (for between 5 and 10 seconds, depending on the light), then getting it back to the dark room to fix and develop while the coating was still tacky.

The whole process took about 10 minutes, and a second plate couldn't be exposed until the preceding one had been dealt with. The ''photos'' scratched serial numbers and vague descriptions on the plate. In subsequent decades, firms merged, or sold collections; serial numbers were often confused -- and wildly inaccurate captions were accepted as valid (until Mr. Frassanito sorted them out).

Enlargements from glass plates were then almost impossible; ''photos'' would expose the large plates, then switch to cameras to record the same scenes for the much-more profitable stereo views.

''Photos'' usually reached the battlefields a day or two after the fighting (if it was a Union victory; if the Confederates held the field, there would be no pictures). By that time, the Union dead had usually been buried -- or at least collected for burial; the bulk of the dead soldiers portrayed were Confederates, left until last.

The public's morbid tastes were no different than today; Gardner, whose pictures display remarkable artistic talent, headed straight for death and destruction on the fields he visited. He was, moreover, not above dragging bodies 50 yards to more photogenic locations, and arranging the corpses for greater dramatic impact; the famous picture of the young Confederate sniper, dead at his rocky post in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg, features a corpse first photographed some distance away.

Mr. Morris, a former naval officer and CIA employee, syndicates his own column.

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