Sunday, February 2, 2014

Photography and the American Civil War at NOMA

Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Georgia Volunteer Infantry

It was America's bloodiest war, brother against brother, fighting to the bitter end. We grew up hearing that, and if sounds over-hyped, consider that its 750,000 toll was nearly twice number of U.S. dead in World War II, our second bloodiest war. This exhibition, organized by former New Orleanian, now Metropolitan Museum of Art photography curator, Jeff L. Rosenheim, features over 200 vintage photos of the warriors and the war, providing us with a visual overview of a period of extraordinary transition in American history. Not only was it a painful rebirth of the republic after being nearly sundered by secession, it was also the beginning of photojournalism as we know it. Photography was a barely 20 year old medium when the Civil War began and here we see both the startling earnestness with which the mostly young troops gaze into the camera's lens, as well as implicit stagecraft that inevitably attends any visual depiction of historically momentous events. The result is a high contrast collision of idealism and horror with a dash of old fashioned hucksterism on the side.

Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1865

Military portraits were a hot consumer item in a country filled with guys going off to war, so photo studios proliferated. Maybe it had to do with 19th century styles, but subjects like Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, top, exude a charisma that would be hard to replicate today. It makes for a stark contrast to the ghastly scenes of shredded fabric and flesh rotting on the protruding bones of soldiers where they fell, sometimes in great numbers in pastures drenched with blood. Many news photographs were attributed to Matthew Brady who, true to the spirit of enterprise, was really more of an executive who affixed his signature to the work of his camera wielding surrogates. These remarkable documentary photographs and studio portraits provide both objective and subjective insights into an epic conflagration that haunts us to this day. ~Bookhardt

Photography and the American Civil War: Large Scale Exhibition of Vintage Photographs, through May 4, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. Left: President Lincoln, General McClernand, right, and Secret Service Chief Allan Pinkerton, left, near Antietam, Maryland.