America’s tryst with photography began around two decades before the Civil War. But the camera found its actual voice because of the societal and political construct of the late 19th-century War. The war, with its narratives, killed soldiers, battlefields, and wrath, was the central playground for a camera in America.
The Civil War saw the abolition of slavery and unification of the country and provided the citizens with a new meaning of individual freedom – with the events etched permanently on chemically coated glass plates.
The concept of photography came to America from France. But in virtually no time were the people of America laying their hands on prints and putting them in their family albums. There was a dire need to make advancements in technology and satiate society.
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The Evolution Of Photography
Beginning in 1840, photography documented many of the pivotal events in American history. Some of the signal events documented were the rapid expansion of San Francisco, the building of the transcontinental railroads, the Gold Rush, and the brutal Civil War battlefields.
Photography debuted in America in the fall of 1839. From then on, scientists and technicians wasted no time in shortening the exposure duration, giving the citizens of America a feel of portraits. Before the advancements, the camera could only click images of immobile objects.
The late 1850s saw the use of “wet-plate” negatives that empowered photographers to print any number of positive prints on paper from glass negatives. A cameraman could now produce a lot of copies for his customers.
The invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 paved the way for many amateur photographers to enter the market. It also made photography a very popular hobby.
The Essence Of War Pictures
There was an incredible boom in the demand for photographs during the Civil War. It was sought by both the Union and Confederate forces, as well as by regular Americans who wanted images of their loved ones and the actual war scenes.
Families were buying pictures of the slaughter, massacre, and battlefields on a mass scale, and putting them in their portrait albums. Families believed that by including photos of their siblings, sons, or husbands in an album, which would somehow contain their likenesses, they could prevent their deaths.
Portrait galleries were enjoying a thriving business. The exponential rate of deaths during that time was unnerving for society. Grieving families needed something to hold on to. Seeing their own photographs gave people a sense of their individuality.
The Birth Of Photo Journalism
Wars had been documented before, but none came close to the way the Civil War gained traction. The war birthed the first instances of photojournalism. When the war began, photographers started to head out to the countryside with their heavy pieces of equipment and gear. They wanted to bring the truth of a war–atrocities, blood, death, and loss– to the masses.
It was for the first time in history that the masses saw the devastation in the battlefields hundreds of miles away from their dwellings.
In addition to the war atrocities, photographs, along with articles and essays, were also important instruments of support to the abolitionist movement. Articles flashed the inhuman treatment that was being meted out to the slaves.
The “branded slave” picture of Wilson Chinn was one of the most circulated pictures of the abolitionist movement. The picture has the name of Mr. Wilson’s master branded on his forehead. The photograph also shows the range of torture instruments that were used by the masters on Mr. Wison.
Online portals like Road To The Civil War have been trying to bring American history to the masses, specifically to the students. The website documents events that led to the collapse of America in exhaustive collections of photos. Visitors can see, print, and even dig deep into each picture on their website.
The powerful photographs changed the public view of the war. The people who made war photography their careers understood the social obligations of their work and valued the power that came with the camera.
Historians say that photography changed the course of the Civil War in many ways. It helped war-stricken families have a keepsake memoir of their sons, father, and brothers who were away from home.
Photography also played a very big role in enhancing the political imagery of leaders like President Lincoln! He once famously joked that his re-election would not have been possible without his portrait clicked by photographer Matthew Brady.