Picturing the Civil War

Last month was exciting for the Photographic History Collection. I participated in the Smithsonian’s first online education conference, presenting a session on Civil War photography. There were over 3,000 participants from 696 cities on six continents. (Does that mean the few folks in Antarctica weren’t so interested in Lincoln and Civil War photography?)

ObamaScreenshot of detail from President Barak Obama’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009. Copyright David Bergman.

Detail from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. There seems to be some debate as to who took the original photograph. This print was made by Clarence Dodge. Catalog number 88.0039.122

Together, we did a live compare and contrast exercise using detailed close-ups from photographs of Lincoln’s second Inaugural address and a screen shot from David Bergman’s Gigapan image of President Obama’s Inaugural address. It was a tremendous amount of fun to be live with so many individuals and class groups who were sending in their comments. Our presentations were recorded and are available on the conference Web site.

As a teaser for my session, Civil War images from an album in the Photographic History Collection were featured on NPR’s The Picture Show. The album was assembled sometime around the end of the Civil War (mid to late 1860s) and sent to a man in Switzerland. This explains why some of the captions are in German. The album made its way back to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century when the heir of the album decide that he didn’t have much interest in the subject. Not knowing where to send it, he mailed it to the AGFA-ANSCO company in Binghamton, New York, which was originally owned by E. and H.T. Anthony & Co. The Anthonys had supplied Mathew Brady the photographic materials he used to document the Civil War and so the heir thought they might be an appropriate group to keep the album.

By the 1970s, when the National Museum of American History received the album, along with donations of cameras and Brady negatives, the company was called General Analine & Film (GAF). Whew! Sometimes our objects have made long and circuitous journeys before nestling in at the museum. Just to note, the album does have Brady portraits, but the Lincoln photograph on the first page is by Alexander Gardner.

And speaking of Mathew Brady (yes, his name is spelled with just one “t”), Smithsonian Magazine put together a presentation of his work from around the Institution. My colleagues Ann Shumard and David Ward of the National Portrait Gallery join me in that piece to offer our thoughts and knowledge on Brady and his work.

Shannon Perich is Associate Curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.

Posted in Civil War