Photographers traveled in wagons carrying into the field their bulky cameras, tripods and darkroom. Through a process known as wet-plate, the images were captured on chemically coated pieces of glass. The trained photographers would process the photographs on location in the cramped quarters of their wagon.
Stereographic cameras had two lenses and took two simultaneous images, one just 65 mm from the other, accounting for the space between the average person’s eyes. The stereographs could be viewed through a device called a stereoscope, which is similar to the viewfinder of our youth. When viewed, a person's brain merged the images together, giving the impression that the photograph was a three-dimensional image.
The first actual gruesome war photographs on public display in the Civil War were taken at Sharpsburg, Maryland several days after the battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
Up to the battle in Sharpsburg, photographs of the war were staged, showing Generals posing in front of their tents, soldiers standing in lines, or of equipment including cannons and railroad cars. Since the photographs were time exposures, the subject had to be still for 10-15 seconds.
The newspapers of the day took the photographs and made woodblock drawings. It was the drawings from the photographs that appeared in the newspapers, not the photographs.
Photographic prints were mounted and shown in the Mathew Brady galleries in Washington and New York. The first display entitled “The Dead at Antietam” even showed a disclaimer due to the graphic violence present in the images. For the first time, images of dead bodies were shown, taken within a day or two of the battle. The public reacted in horror to the Antietam photographic display.
Because Mathew Brady owned the studio, his name became synonymous for the photographs. But often it was his employees, especially Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, who took the photographs in the field.
Brady had learned photography from Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse is mostly known for his invention of the telegraph and the system of dots and dashes used bearing his name (Morse code). Morse had taken information about his invention to France. He traded the idea of the telegraph to Louis Daguerre who had invented a photographic process that bore his name – daguerreotype. Morse returned to the United States and began teaching photography. Samuel F. B. Morse is known as the “father of photography” in this country. His most famous student was Mathew Brady.
Brady hired and trained a large contingent of photographers. And in the process, because of his contribution to the reporting of the war, Brady became the first photo journalist in the country.
Controversy has surrounded the civil war photographer’s role in recent years. Speculation about certain photographs taken at Gettysburg indicate that the photographers, including Alexander Gardner, may have taken a few fresh bodies in their wagons and positioned them around the battle field in key areas in the uniforms of both the Union and the Confederacy. Most of the bodies would have been bloated beyond recognition by the time the photographers got to the battlefield. Thus the photographers would only have a few fresh bodies to work with. The most famous of those possibly “staged” photographs was taken by Gardner at Devil’s Den.
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