GETTYSBURG, Pa. — From graphic images of the dead on battlefields to portraits of troops in between skirmishes, the Civil War was the first American military conflict captured by photographers and the first foray into photojournalism in the United States.
No camera phones. Forget Polaroids. Photography had been around for decades by the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, and most towns had a photographer. But the practice itself was laborious, at least compared to today’s instant standards and the way Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke captured images of the re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.
So in Civil War, photographers sensed opportunity, according to John Rudy, an instructor of Civil War-era studies at Gettysburg College.
Very rarely were scenes of war taken, Rudy said, simply because the exposure time of three to five seconds was too long to capture moving action.
“These men were working for pay. They’re part-artist, part-chroniclers, but also keenly aware that their image has to sell,” Rudy says.
Renowned Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, for instance, had to load two wagonloads full of equipment before rushing to Gettysburg when he heard of the potential for a major conflict in the Pennsylvania town. Gettysburg is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle that took place July 1-3, 1863.
The first true images of the war were produced in September 1862 at Antietam, according to the National Park Service’s website for the Maryland battlefield. Gardner made to trips to Antietam, the first two days after battle, and captured grim images. Gardner made a second trip two weeks later when President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield.
“During both of his trips, Gardner moved across the battlefield taking advantage of another new photographic technique that increased the impact of war images — stereograph. Two lenses capture two simultaneous photographs, and when seen through a viewer, the mind creates a three-dimensional image,” the National Park Service said.