NEH Readings and the Illustrated Press

Greg Downs of the City College of New York led our discussion on July 11 and it was a well-developed and far-reaching conversation in which he asked a series of good questions to “prime the pump” and then directed the participants.  I thought I would outline a few ideas and questions that we were thinking about during the morning session.

Questions we considered with a few responses mixed in:

Why examine visual culture in relation to text?  It’s important for our students – they do have a sense of visual, even if an imperfect one.  James Cook (James W. Cook, “Seeing the Visual in U.S. History,” Journal of American History 95:2 (September 2008) ) offers that the visual matters because it matters to the subject (modern and historical people care a lot about how they will be seen or perceived).

What do we do with images? What are the signs that something more interesting and productive might be happening?

Images help us see things more easily than we might in text only and we ask why are things juxtaposed against one another?  There was a reference to Beth Johns and what she has done with genre painting analysis.  I have not read this text and it is currently out of print, but a lot of the ideas expressed resonate with me, particularly given that she spends time discussing the works of George Caleb Bingham.  One reviewer indicated, Johns was most successful in “arguing that genre paintings had a social function that related in a more significant and less idealistic way to the political and cultural life of the time.”

How do we reconstruct the materiality of these images?  We have to work to put these images back into context so we can explain to students, here is how a stereoscope worked, here is how this equipment was sold, etc.  Also, we want to consider working with students on ideas like, this is what’s going on with posing people for photographs and how did people at the time see that image, etc.

We often spend time developing the concept of history as the past, history as what we do, and history as taught – we use visual evidence to help ‘reconstruct the worldview’ of historical people.  As a result, using visual evidence to write about the past is a useful tool – we can find ways to get students to understand how the image would have been seen so that students can comment about it as well.

Is the object of study the image? Is it the image in context? Is it the experience of seeing the image in the past for the first time?

There is the possibility of integrating visual history, cultural of seeing, with political narratives of the war.  For example, Alice Fahs talked about attenuated visual culture and building up southern nationalism.  When we examine these objects and their context, we try to build bridges between dominant political narrative, etc.  In doing so, do we  miss some of the great details in the ‘remediated object’?  Even if for the first time, we agreed that it is great to be able to stand in front of some of these actual objects themselves.

What codes would have been available to 19th century people?  What could they have seen that we cannot because we are not in that physical/time drawn space?

Eventually we may better understand that images made by specific people in specific contexts cannot help but reflect certain perspectives.  For example, people did sort of think – “now with photography, we do have ‘the thing itself’ so we now know what the object preserved in the image truly is.”  The public was highly conditioned to recognize gaps between representation/reality.  We wondered whether we are being played by the past in some ways – people are perhaps aware of the viewers and their images and their potential trail and what they’re revealing about themselves to future generations.  The readings are suggesting that things are not monolithic – status, class, region, gender, all of these things are factors in how African Americans and others are being represented.  When this scenario is the case, who is the audience of that piece? How did they receive it?   What did they think about this material?  In many instances, we must put the photographs in the context of other visual material – you won’t, argued one participant, get a neutral portrait of a black sitter by a white artist but did cameras change that issue in some minds of viewers or photographers?

I have long been suspicious of embedding too much meaning in images, partially because I wonder whether our interpretations and our own context are playing a very large part in our determination of the meaning extant in the images in question.  We discussed, for example, how even 1850s era photographs are differently contextualized than 1860s era images among the people of the day who may have seen both.  With that idea in mind, how do we, standing in the 21st century move backwards 150 years to understand meaning.

Perhaps a good example came as we wrapped up the first discussion session.  We were examining the case of a runaway slave named Dolly and how her image entered our consciousness because of an ad constructed by her owner, Louis Manigault.  Does the photograph of Dolly fix the image of this particular runway in a way that other runaway ads from earlier time periods do not?   – Bill Barney’s work on runaway slaves relates to why Manigault keeps this image of Dolly long after she is gone as part of a scrapbook.  It was pointed out that even with the photograph, Manigault still uses coded language, similar to what we might have seen earlier in time, to describe Dolly.

Josh Brown – Discussing the Illustrated Press

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, Harper’s, New York Illustrated
“seeing the civil war, artists, the public, and pictorial news and views”

Related to our concerns about contextualizing images, we discussed how Google searches for images has blown away the original context in which people saw these images and that can impact interpretations and meaning.  This is an issue I have long worried about in terms of the increased level of digitization of material.  It’s great to be able to have students do digital searches of the New York Times, but if the students aren’t looking at the entire pages in question, they can miss some opportunities for interpretation.

Pr. Brown spent a good amount of time explaining the background of the three main papers, all centered in New York City.  Each of these papers were modeled on the London News which had been in existence since 1842.  These papers were marketed in both the south and north despite the fact that all were based in NYC.  These papers, Pr. Brown explained, purposefully decided to ignore slavery if possible so as to not make enemies of subscribers.  For example, editorials in Leslie’s called John Brown a maniac, but their reporting on Harper’s Ferry and the ensuing trial made Southern readers angry nonetheless.

How was Reporting this War different?
Some of the important changes that emerged during this time period allowed reporters to present information within a day of its occurrence thanks to the telegraph.  The illustrated weeklies used engravings to get images across to people and they were reaching a large number of readers – circulation of the three papers hovered around and above 100,000.  It is believed that far more readers existed than the subscription numbers indicate.

While historians have recognized photography as a unique contributor to recording the war, Pr. Brown emphasized that numbers of other visual media is actually larger, yet photographs continue to dominate our imagination.  This fact may be due to the existence of large collections of combat photographs since the 1930s and may also be tied to the use of Civil War era photographs in an exhibition on photography in New York City in 1937.  We can see some of the collections of the “illustrated war” in online databases and digitized collections, two of which I have attached here.

Publications and sketched ephemera were popular across the ranks and frontlines in general in the Union army.  The publications were all subscription based, not surviving on advertising.  Many soldiers read these papers, as has been alluded to earlier, and yet not every American was a believer in the material.  One Southern reader said that the pictures in Harper’s and Leslie’s tell more lies than Satan!

The Southern Illustrated News began in September 1862 and was an eight page weekly printed in Richmond.  Southerners, wanted a record of the Confederacy at war and there was a desire to replace the unreliable Northern press.  After being cut off by naval blockade, the Confederacy could not publish something like the big three from New York City, as the Southern states did not have presses, ink, engravers, or paper!  On occasion, illustrations in the Southern papers strangely resembled the images from New York publications – substituting people for one another.

The engraver/artist Frank Vizetelly came to America after covering Garibaldi in Italy and he worked for the London press.  Vizetelly ended up depicting the Confederacy from Fredericksburg in 1862 to Jefferson Davis fleeing Richmond in 1865.  Almost all British correspondents (except William Howard Russell) were pro-Confederate.

Some artists also wrote their own perspectives and experience of the reporting itself – in some cases, these remarks told the reader how to interpret the material itself.  In addition, some artists wrote about the desire to be at the right place at the right time and provided images of themselves to give us a sense that these special artists’ lives were hard, but rewarding.  Alfred Waud is one such example – the photograph of Waud with vaguely campaign-related hats, guns, knife, and sketchpad established the image of the wartime correspondent that continues into today.

Some final thoughts
Among some of the editors, there was control so weeklies might have simply decided not to publish certain pieces of art – one such example was an Arthur Lumley sketch of union troops depicted as sacking Fredericksburg in December 1862.  Typically however, there was very little in the way of censorship (only one known example of the Union government doing so).

Artists and writers alike discovered that warfare was chaotic and fluid so it was dangerous and that very fluidity also made it difficult to represent the combat in ‘real time.’  Another challenge was that the engraving process inserted other artists into the vision of the original pieces of work.  This image on the boxwood engraving process gives a sense of some of the challenging work in getting the engraving even completed.  In addition in terms of story telling structure these engravings did not always work, eg, an audience cheering at the same instance in which people are delivering a speech.  The pictorial press lent a level of the palpable to the news of the war, giving both content and context to events that involved people’s relatives and friends.


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