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Seeing the Elephant
Traveling Exhibit of Civil War Photographs Charges NOMA
Cheryl Castjohn sifts through a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit of Civil War photographs that arrived at NOMA this week.
In an instant, The New York Times' vast search capabilities produce an excerpt from a March 1, 1861, item explicating the wartime Americanism. The piece describes a mid-19th century farmer who has become preoccupied with seeing an elephant firsthand, to the point of obsession. As the story goes, when he finally meets the juggernaut, the encounter leaves his horse frightened, his wagon smashed, his eggs and poultry ruined, and the farmer inexplicably thrilled to have finally lived out his dream. Having derived from this, “seeing the elephant” came to describe a situation where the fervor of war met the immovable object that was our federal government, a force formerly known simply as the Union.
The Civil War would break out 42 days later on April 12. "Seeing the elephant” became a euphemism for going to war, an ominous allusion to the fratricidal conflict that nearly tore America into two. It would endure 1,488 days; leave 750,000 dead; and thus expend an average of 504 lives per day throughout its official duration until May 10, 1865.
Photography was a mere 20 years old in 1861, and the medium intertwined its destiny with the American Civil War instantly and permanently in a way that Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Jeff Rosenheim has spent five intensive (and 10 total) years unraveling, often with his bare hands.
The results of that work are now on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art in the Met-organized exhibit, Photography and the American Civil War. With more than 200 photographs sprawling throughout the several rooms of both the Templeman Galleries and Lupin Decorative Arts Center on NOMA’s second floor, the exhibit offers so much beyond the so-called two-dimensional photograph. The inclusion of many ambrotype and tintype cased images shows countless would-be heroes heading off to defend their interests. We glimpse their expressions in these portraits both before and after “seeing the elephant” that was the juggernaut of Union solidarity.
The affordability and relative ease of photographic portrait-making had already begun to transform American life. Soldiers were having their photos taken in uniform and then leaving the pictures behind with loved ones as cartes de visites, photos characterized by their brave allegiance or fierce fighting prowess. Some tilted their chins gallantly skyward, others sat with weapons in hand. A group of young Confederates brandish clunky but daunting Bowie knives in one photo, as they quite literally rush off to a war that was unquestionably a gun fight. When Rosenheim begins to describe the knives as “talismanic,” the exhibit’s true spirit begins to take shape.
Photography and the American Civil War illuminates the point of quickening that took place when war and pictures met, and how this intense relationship has shaped ours into the visual culture it certainly has become. A medium that hadn't quite reached legal adulthood, photography turned out to be a remarkably effective democratizer. Poor people could now afford to have their pictures made. Charming photographers competed for business by taking their studios on the road in the form of skylit canvas tents.
All in all, around 2000 photographers shot roughly 1 million pictures during the Civil War period.
The show’s highlights include a game board whose light spaces are Union soldier portraits, an intricately carved tagua nut necklace featuring a likeness of Jefferson Davis, and several stereographs through which visitors can peer into a three-dimensional history. One stereograph has been modified to house an iPad slide show, an innovation by Rosenheim created specifically for the show. Another room is entirely devoted to the story of Reed Brockway Bontecou, a Civil War doctor who used the medium to further the care of his patients. This portion of the exhibit is a little grisly, but through the curator’s eyes we see Bontecou doing all the good that he can, by all the means that he can. The doctor created photographic patient records with the purpose of improving overall patient care.
NOMA Curator of Photographs Russell Lord speculated that only the Met could summon such a wealth of artifacts and produce a show of this caliber and magnitude. Featured at one point in the exhibit is a story of a group of emancipated New Orleans slaves who were taken to Philadelphia for the purpose of being photographed. Meant to raise enlistment, morale and money for the Union cause, the photos would be sold and distributed as proof that the North was achieving its goals. Rosenheim notes the wide range of skin tones from dark to light evident in a group shot of the slaves. Such proof of the miscegenation that occurred within slavery’s history makes the viewer painfully aware of the sexual enslavement of black women that occurred increasingly until the entire practice was finally abolished.
Rosenheim admits that his search for medical photography in particular yielded fantastical results beyond his expectation. From a live shot of a field surgery to patients seated on cots awaiting treatment in another, and finally a 10,000-patient facility, these likenesses in Rosenheim’s traveling show are the stuff that inspires cinema today. The changing visages and deforming bodies of wounded soldiers are lost physical evidence preserved solely by the advent of photography. At this juncture, Rosenheim marvels over the discoveries yet to be made public, with family photos remaining as the exhaustive databases from which lost histories can be reclaimed.
Photography and the American Civil War is on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art through May 4. Special admission rates apply for the exhibition.
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