Shadows and Fight

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art opened the traveling exhibit “Shadows of History: Photographs of the Civil War” which features the best-known photographs of the Civil War, original photos by the period’s greats. 


Featuring the enterprising work of George N. Barnard, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Mathew Brady, and Alexander Gardner, this exhibit should not be confused with the later advent of photojournalism.  Richard McCabe, Curator of Photography, reminds us that these photographers “foresaw an American public eager to pay for images of the war.” 


Conceived prior to the formation of journalistic sensibilities, McCabe explains that Brady, Barnard, O’Sullivan and Gardner’s stylistic choices were “informed by fine art and infused with the symbolic vocabulary and romanticism of painting. Most had studied art.”  


The photographs on view are selections from the extensive collection of Julia J. Norrell.  Inspired by Jay Winik's book “April 1865:  The Month that Saved America," Norrell began seeking out a truer picture of the Civil War. Norrell’s father, William Frank Norrell, served in the US Congress for more than 20 years as a representative of her native Arkansas. Norrell explains that the book, “led me to reject the more romantic versions of the war I had grown up with” and to see it, as historian Stephen W. Sears described, as “a landscape turned red.”


Norrell may be best known as a major driving force behind the success of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Directed by her pragmatic father away from the study of philosophy, Norrell became a lawyer although she never practiced.  Instead, she lobbied for a wide range of organizations, among them the National Arts Trust Fund.  In a statement as an Ohio Wesleyan University successful alum’, Norrell mentioned the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno in particular as a college coach who vehemently opposed the enactment of Title IX.  It should come as no surprise that Paterno may have negated the rights of those less entitled than himself in favor of his own success, but it might have served as a forewarning about other abuses he was willing to tolerate in order to continue “winning.”


A clear counterpoint to this way of thinking, Norrell has stated, “Of course, you need money to do things, but success isn’t about the accumulation of wealth. Success really consists of the ability to communicate and be of benefit to others.”  


“Shadows of History” represents the culmination of Norrell’s dedication to art for its ability to tell the story and help people understand the world, beginning with herself.


The most celebrated photo in the collection is an oval matted picture of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Light Artillery as they are collaborating to fire a cannon.  The photo depicts 11 men in total — six attentive bystanders and five actively engaged in ensuring pyrotechnic success.  Though serving differing roles in the endeavor, the men in the photo all have one thing in common: they are of African descent. This fact is the photo’s punctum, that aspect of a picture which “pierces the viewer,” as famed French theorist Roland Barthes might have identified it.  The people whose very freedom was at stake in this grisly war are now manning the cannon. They are suddenly wielding the power to fight. 


The battles are ugly and horrific, the loss of life is shameful and the destruction of faces and hands and arms and legs is haunting as in any war.  The on-site surgeries and their woefully crude lack of technical capabilities during this time period are that much more gory and fearful.  Other more horrific and well-known images of the Civil War, such as those of body-strewn battlefields, reinforce the staggering loss of life that occurred. Those depictions of bodies in piles account for the aforementioned red landscape. But from this exhibit emerges a glimpse of previously enslaved men empowered to answer centuries of brutality with might and authority. The aim was not to turn the tables of oppression, but instead to end it.  

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