Image above: ©Abraham Lincoln, Photographer unknown, March 1 – June 30, 1861, Albumen print.
Soul Lit Shadows is an extensive documentation of the Civil War containing photos of slain soldiers, portraits of Union and Confederate recruits, pictures of resting soldiers waiting for battle and portraits of both Abraham Lincoln and his assassin. Since it was the first time ever that a war was documented with camera from beginning to end, this exhibition is not only a historical documentation but also a documentation of art history.
Left: ©Ulysses S. Grant, Mathew Brady, c. 1866, albumen print, cabinet card; Center: ©Alexander Gardner, Photographer unknown, c. 1860, Albumen print; Right: ©Mathew Brady, Photographer unknown, c. 1860s, Albumen print.
The exhibition includes photography by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, two of the first American photographers. Brady followed and documented the Union army during the war. How the war was seen (and still is) was very much influenced by the view that he shaped with his photography. These photos made the war vivid and personal to the general public. The documentation show the humanity in a conflict by portraying individuals, rather than soldiers, resting and waiting for battle. Gardner, who started as an apprentice to Brady, took most of the existing portraits of Abraham Lincoln. He also photographed the execution of the conspirators of the Lincoln assassination, a photo present in the exhibition.
©Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, From Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, 1865-66.
By the 1860s technology allowed the general public to buy affordable portraits of famous people as well as taking family portraits, something that had previously been a privilege reserved for the wealthy. Lincoln was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century and the first president to have his face known to the public, due to photographs affordably sold in tens of thousands and engraved for illustrated newspapers. Lincoln himself even stated: ”Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president”. The photographs are not only portraits of Lincoln himself, but show him together with his wife and children. This is one of the first times that we see the power of humanizing politicians by showing the population photos of them in relatable situations.
©A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep, Alexander Gardner, From Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, 1865-66.
The most interesting pieces of this exhibition however is not the portraits of Lincoln or the documentations of the soldiers waiting for or resting up after battle. It is instead the collections of cartes des visite, small pocket sized card portraits. The men that went to war would carry these pictures of family and loved ones with them and they would pose for these cards before they left. The photos shown in the exhibition is in many cases the only visual memory families had of their sons. These formally posed and stiff photos are therefore more haunting than what first meets the eye. These are the “soul lit shadows”.
©Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills, Richmond, Andrew J. Russell, From United States Military Photographic Album, c. 1865.
by Helena Calmfors
Check some more images here.