New-York Historical Society and Civil War photographs

Tony Lee from Mt. Holyoke College presented on issues of images from the home front versus images from the war front.  The argument was made that the differences between these two are perhaps more in the mind, because after all, what’s the difference between home front and battle front in a place like Petersburg or Vicksburg?

Pr. Lee reminded participants that one of the more interesting challenges about photographs is that we must remember that every time we click a shutter, we picture a place and time.  Questions we asked ourselves dealt with issues as to whether the 19th century audience went through the same process. Did they picture the place (the battlefield) when the image appeared either on a display or in the form of an engraving?  Were Americans prepared to ‘see’ that space/place of battle because of their exposure to various types of images both before, after, and during the war years?

In addition, we were reminded that each image we looked at that was a photograph was presenting only a portion of the tale of the era.  The bulk of the photographs are of northern scenes or camps, so southern forces are automatically limited.  In addition, we have been exposed largely to battlefield corpse scenes and these represent but a minority of the possible photographs we might examine!

We also explored good questions about how much we read into the images (portraits, landscape, etc.) and what do they mean?  For example, what was the purpose of the portrait is an interesting question.  For historians and art historians alike, considering whether the picture itself is a tabula rasa or if there is a specific purpose laid on it is important.  In one example, did the photographer ask the sitter to cross his legs or was that shot set up by the client?  Do we overemphasize the broadcasting of “the self’ when we examine portraits?

In the afternoon, Barbara Krauthamer and Deborah Willis discussed their forthcoming book and the research behind it.  Envisioning Emancipation asks questions as to how the civil war functions as an event that was shaped by African Americans while also establishing that images testify to individuals but also to collective experiences.  Many of these images are evocative of loss and therefore function as memorials.  This image connected to Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and others taken at the Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Law Convention in 1850 is dramatic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the challenge of shooting a large group outdoors.

The conversation ranged across a variety of examples of portraits and other shots and included thoughts on how to work with students on these images.  Ideas about sending students to look in newspapers for advertising of photographers abounded as did the notion to look in diaries and letters to see if people wrote about having their picture taken.  Were African Americans exceptional in what they attempted to achieve with their portraits or are they simply middle class in the same way that the white population was striving to be?

The final images focused on freedom as social life, religious life, and private life, including images of large baptisms, bands, people’s homes, picnics, etc.  This discussion and the connected images got me thinking about some images I have used in classes for a while.

The images I’m linking here are ones that I asked Barbara and Deborah a question about regarding homesteading on the Great Plains.  Jerry Shores and his family moved to Nebraska and took claims next to two of his brothers.  Moses Speese was one brother, Henry Webb was the other – unfortunately we do not have an image of the Webb family.  Former slaves, each brother had taken the surname of their former owners.  These families did not create the kinds of large ‘free spaces’ or communities that were mentioned today (eg, Nicodemus in Kansas) but they were still exploring emancipation in a larger geographic space than we might imagine.

What can we do with images like these when we think about story, architecture, nature, freedom?

Interested in the photographer of these images?  Learn more about Solomon Butcher and his photographs either at the Library of Congress or through the Nebraska State Historical Society.


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