The Life of a Civil War Photograph

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"Perhaps more than any other artifact, the photograph has engaged our thoughts about time and eternity. I say “perhaps,” because the history of photography spans less than 200 years. How many of us have been “immortalized” in a newspaper, a book or a painting vs. how many of us have appeared in a photograph?" -- Errol Morris, Whose Father Was He?

You have to read Whose Father Was He?, a fascinating five-part series about the fate of a civil war soldier and a photograph of his children over at the New York Times. One of about 8000 casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg, a soldier was found without any identification. He did, however, have an ambrotype photograph of his three young children in his pocket. The series chronicles the efforts to locate the soldier's family, and what has become of them in the ensuing 140 years.

I am by no means a civil war buff, but the story was so moving that I found myself looking forward to each installment of the story this week. The Carter has a good number of 19th-century portrait photographs, many of which depict long-dead people that no has been able to identify, and probably never will. When I work with these images, I always wonder about these people's stories and it makes me a little sad to know that they are essentially lost. I loved reading in this NYT series about the historian who went to great lengths to study the life of this soldier (and also some interesting tangents into whaling, orphanages, and Mayan astroastronomy).

Some of my favorite portraits of anonymous sitters from our collection. What are their stories? We'll probably never know.


[Unidentified infantry colonel], daguerreotype, ca. 1847


[Woman and child], daguerreotype, ca. 1850s


[Young woman in dark dress], tintype, ca. 1863-1869

Comments

I know what I'm reading this weekend! How fascinating, thanks Jana.

Find a comfy spot and get a snack, because it's a pretty hefty read!

I'm going to have to look into that 5 part series as well as passing it on to my father as I know he would enjoy this as well!

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