Photographic History Collection: Alexander Gardner

Photographic History Collection: Alexander Gardner

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Alexander Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1821. Before coming to America in 1856, he trained as a jeweler and a chemist, but was more interested in the fairly new invention of photography. After immigrating to New York, he worked for Mathew Brady, in his photographic studios in New York and Washington, DC. In 1862, after disagreeing with Brady over photographer’s rights to gain credit for their pictures, he left Brady’s studio and started his own business in Washington, DC, where his most famous subject was Abraham Lincoln. Gardner not only took the last posed photograph of Lincoln in February of 1865, but also photographs of his funeral and the hanging of the conspirators of his assassination. Besides Lincoln, he also took pictures of other government figures such as, Supreme Court Justices and visiting delegates.
During the Civil War, Gardner became a photographer for the Army of the Potomac of recording non-battle scenes, such as military camps, and the aftermath of battles that had just taken place. He later combined his photographs of the war with those of his staff photographers, and wrote a two-volume book called Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, for which he is well-known. In 1867, he closed his studio in Washington and began photographing for Union Pacific Railroad. While traveling through the West in his wagon, he took many images of the frontier and the Indians he passed along the way. Some of his stereographs made from this time are represented in PHC. He died in 1882, not long after his return to Washington, and even though he was one of the first photographers who regarded his work as art, he never received much recognition for it until after his death.
Both volumes of Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, were published in 1866 upon commission. Each book contains fifty photographs of different scenes of the Civil War including the artillery used, the places where battles took place, and graphic aftermath of such battles as Gettysburg and Antietam. For each photograph, Gardner wrote a description of the contents and what took place at that sight. Unfortunately, these books were not commercially successful because of Gardner’s timing. Few people were willing to order the expensive books which recalled a painful past. Today we value Gardner’s effort, skill acknowledgement of work by individual photographers.
Note: The text associated with these images was written by Alexander Gardner and appears with original spellings and typographic errors.
Object Name
Alexander Gardner Collection
Gardner, Alexander
ID Number
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Work and Industry: Photographic History
Transcontinental Railroad
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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