Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Scot who Shot the Civil War.

The BBC showed a 1 hour documentary on Alexander Gardner, a Scot from Paisley, who moved to New York and worked as a camera operator. Gardner’s technical skill was so good that he was tasked with photographing the Union Army during the Civil War. Gardner first spent an amount of time in his studio taking portraits of young men in uniform going off to fight what they thought was going to be a short war. Gardner’s portraits were hand tinted and the gold braiding on the uniforms was painstakingly hand-painted in. Gardner followed the men into war and his first images of the civil war were post battlefield images of bodies lying where they fell. Gardner followed the war both on the battlefield and off, taking four portraits of the new president of the Union Abraham Lincoln. The four images are startling as they mark the time between Lincoln’s first rise to presidency, through the bloody civil war to the final portrait which was taken practically on the day the civil war ended. Gardner’s technique in portraiture is outstanding in that you can see in the last portrait what the weariness and struggle of war and trying to unite the nation had done to Lincoln.

The programme proposed that Gardner was the first War Photojournalist – photographers whose images of the dead on the battlefield and the damage that it did to the cities were unique in style. The programme, however, skirted over the work of Roger Fenton who five years before the start of the civil war had been photographing the Crimean war. Fenton had taken one of the first, if not the first, post battlefield image from the valley of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Fenton also photographed landmarks and images of fortifications mainly for propaganda images. Fenton’s work is also closely matched by the work of Gustav Le Gray who was photographing French troops during the Crimean war.

While not the first War journalist in the civil war, Forbes Weekly had commissioned the artist William “Alfred” Waud and Winslow Homer to draw and paint images from the front line which were then filled in and etched onto publishing plates for the printer. Gardner was in the unique position of having support from the Generals for the use of his roving darkroom to replicate maps during the war. Gardner’s printing skills came into use again after the assassination of President Lincoln where he was able to print images for handbills calling for the capture of the perpetrators.

Upon their capture Gardner was given access to the prisoners and he photographed their portraits both straight on and to the side, possible making these the first “mug shots” of prisoners. Gardner was given almost free access to the prisoners and his images are clear and well defined, considering that they were taken aboardship during the period of time when the prisoners were held. Gardner’s single access also took him to the prison here he and an assistant were the first people to photograph an execution. Gardner’s skill is shown in the image where he caught the figures dropping after the trapdoors were sprung for their hanging.

Most of Gardner’s images were never published in newspapers during the war but his images were displayed during and after the war and a selection was published in a book.

Certainly Gardner was in the right place at the right time; his knowledge and skills are shown in his images and his portraiture still stands today as wonderful images showing the soul of his subjects. He was almost certainly the first photographer to embed himself into a military unit and to share his images not only with the military but with the public as well.

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