Civil War Photography...Worth the Read

Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017). By Nicholas Pistor

Photography was a relatively new medium in the 1860s, and the Civil War was the first war photographed in any significant way. Nicholas Pistor’s new volume traces how photographers approached and chronicled the war for posterity from its earliest moments to its final days. Readers with a fluency in Civil War history might find the brief sketch of the issues that divided the nation and the military events as they unfolded a little thin. Pistor provides a cursory narrative, and as such there is nothing resembling war analysis. The author is more concerned with infusing another narrative against the backdrop of the war.

In this effort, Pistor offers a compelling story: one that includes robust competition and what we might consider a Civil War era manifestation of personal branding. Photographer Matthew Brady, as Pistor notes, brought the war to peoples’ doorsteps in a way previously unimagined, and for this he should rightfully assume his place among some of the great media innovators. But Pistor also notes that Brady was not always responsible for the images that bore his trademark name, and that others on his team were often responsible for some of the most iconic images.

But in early photography, name meant a great deal, and Brady’s fame as a national figure delivered. His name today is nearly synonymous with Civil War era photography. Still, others did well with the medium. Former Brady underling Alexander Gardner also made a name for himself. What’s more, he may have had a better business sense – perhaps better negotiating skills than his former supervisor, and thus found himself as the “official” government photographer by the end of the war – a title that would position him among the more noteworthy participants in one of the era’s most macabre culminating moments.

Pistor excels at telling the story of war photography in its infancy, and those with an interest in the subject will find much to offer. What is confusing is the title. The play on words – Shooting Lincoln –  does not really work, simply because this is not a story about photographing Lincoln, who would of course eventually be “shot” and killed, as a “story of the century.” Rather, it is an overview of Civil War photography and a hurried look at the war narrative, which does eventually weave its way to a very interesting story of how Alexander Gardner photographed the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The subtitle of the book is equally misleading. There does not seem to be a “race” here…as in a competition, because as Pistor states, it was Alexander Gardner (not the more well-known Brady) who had the “monopoly” on government photography work.

Pistor suggests in a brief coda that all film makers owe a debt to Gardner for his near live action series of photographs graphically showing the moments leading to the conspirators’ hanging, their final seconds on the scaffold, and the eerie swaying of the dead at the end of the hangman’s ropes. One might agree that Gardner should receive credit for creating a technique for capturing the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators that foreshadowed motion pictures. Pistor’s claims are fair – let the readers be the judge.