Focusing in on details of Civil War objects through the camera lens

When we here at the museum got our first look at the book Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection, we were awed by the quality of the photography. We asked photographer Hugh Talman to share the story behind capturing these images.

As a photographer at the National Museum of American History, it's my job to make history look good. Some of the objects in the national collections pose special challenges for a photographer, whether it's because of their size, materials, or fragility. Sometimes, one little feature of an object can cause a whole lot of trouble.

 

Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection offers an expansive look at Civil War objects from across the Institution and includes hundreds of new, high-quality photographs
"Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection" offers an expansive look at Civil War objects from across the Institution and includes hundreds of new, high-quality photographs

Photography for Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection began in May of 2012 and ended in April of 2013. Almost 500 objects were photographed, including weapons, clothing, coins, documents, jewelry, flags, and personal effects. Each type of material required a different photographic approach—lighting for hats was different than, say, lighting for swords; glass was different than metal; coins were different than uniforms.

There were large objects—in one case, a horse—and small objects, including a single bullet. In both of these cases, we needed to capture as much detail as possible.

 

The new book features a wide range of objects, all of which came with their own challenges. Winchester the horse was one of the biggest objects photographed, while this Minie ball, a type of rifle bullet, was one of the smallest.
The new book features a wide range of objects, all of which came with their own challenges. Winchester the horse was one of the biggest objects photographed, while this Minie ball, a type of rifle bullet, was one of the smallest.

Overall it was a great photographic campaign and a real adventure and challenge. All campaigns finally come down to the last shot, though, and ours came right on the heels of the deadline for final photography. The last shot was a hat. The hat.

 

On the left, photography for this hat is in progress. On the right, the finished shot. Something was missing, however.
On the left, photography for this hat is in progress. On the right, the finished shot. Something was missing, however.

 

Hats actually came early on in the shooting schedule and I'm happy to say most of them were fairly simple. Of course, most of them were also similar to each other, and we got the process figured out well. So when I got the panic call about the last hat, I thought it would be easy. Then I saw the hatbox. I had seen it before and I knew what waited inside.

"Why are we re-shooting this hat?" I asked. The answer: "We didn't have the braid in front."

The hat is an 1864 US Army Light Artillery Cap. It's tall, with black leather and dark blue fabric, a red braid, a red plume, and, its crowning piece: a polished brass eagle with a brass globe on the front. We had indeed met before and it had been ugly. The brass reflects everything, meaning it has to be shot on a black background. Many, many fill cards and scraps of paper had gone into that first shot and now it had to be shot again.

 

When photographing objects, it’s important to get all the details right. In this retaken shot, the hat’s red braid drapes over the front, where we can also see the brass pieces that made the hat so difficult to shoot.
When photographing objects, it's important to get all the details right. In this retaken shot, the hat's red braid drapes over the front, where we can also see the brass pieces that made the hat so difficult to shoot.

Thankfully, the struggles that had produced the first image helped to guide me through the second version and get the final shot for Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection.

Hugh Talman is a photographer in the museum's Photography Services Department. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection is currently available for purchase, both online and in the museum store.

Posted at 7:00 am EST