There were no action photos in the 1860s, but the stunning images that men like Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and others captured during the Civil War more than enlightened the home front about the horrors of those four tragic years.
“Between the States: Photographs From the American Civil War,” a traveling exhibit on loan from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, opened Saturday and runs through May 13 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.
On display are 122 images including reproductions from original albumen prints, ambrotypes, cartes de visites, cabinet cards, and tintypes.
“The thrust of the show is the history of the Civil War as seen through photography, which was a new medium at that time,” said Michelle Murdock, curator of exhibits at the Fenimore Museum. “They couldn’t capture the action, but when the photographs got back to the home front people were looking at images they had never seen before. Those kind of images, the pictures of warfare, were really revolutionary.”
‘Between the States: Photographs From the American Civil War’
WHERE: Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 State Highway 80, Cooperstown
WHEN: Through May 13; open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
HOW MUCH: $12; $10.50 for seniors; free for children 12 and under
MORE INFO: (888) 547-1450, www.fenimoreartmuseum.org
Some of the photographs on display have been in the public domain for years and will be familiar to Civil War buffs. Many others, however, were part of private collections that were donated to the Eastman House or purchased by the museum within the past 30 to 40 years.
“Some of the images will be recognizable to people from their history textbooks, and what the Eastman House did is reproduce them to their original size,” said Murdock. “That should make it enticing, and then there are images that will be new to people, images that were added to the Eastman collection in the 1970s and 1980s that were gifts from private people.”
The exhibit has many scenes showing the aftermath from various battles, and also includes portraits of some of the war’s most prominent individuals.
“It’s about the battlefield, but it’s also about the prisons and the people that became either famous or infamous,” said Murdock.
“The home front isn’t addressed as much as the battles, but there are a few of those images, and also enough imagery about slavery to address that issue. There are also some stunning portraits of soldiers as well as the leaders, like [Abraham] Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, many of the generals, and then people like Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and John Brown.”
The images come in all sizes.
“There is one quite large hand-colored photograph that’s on the scale of a portrait-size painting, and there are the small images, the tiny cartes de visites images that were very popular in those days,” said Murdock. “The size of the images run the gamut.”
Being held in conjunction with “Between the States: Photographs From the American Civil War” is a separate photograph collection produced by Cherry Valley resident Kevin Q. Gray.
“Kevin produced 16 modern tintypes from photographs he took at Gettysburg, and they all are quite large,” said Murdock.
“These are contemporary photographs of the way Gettysburg looks today, and he produced them in the form of tintypes, an extremely popular medium from that time. What’s interesting and what I really appreciate is the interplay between the historic images and the contemporary photos by Kevin.”
Along with the photographs, there is considerable text that accompanies each of the images.
“If you come in and just look through the images it might only take you 40 to 45 minutes,” said Murdock.
“It depends on your level of interest in the Civil War. There is a good deal of text, and I think it’s very beneficial for each visitor to read it. It really enhances the imagery, so if you’re going to read the text and try to discern each image, it will take you a lot longer.”
When visitors look at the exhibit, Murdock invites them to put themselves back in the 1860s and imagine what it must have been like to see these kinds of photographs for the first time.
“If you didn’t witness war first-hand, you only heard about it or read about it,” she said. “Looking at these photos back then must have been a very, very disturbing experience. These images gave you a pretty good idea of what your loved one was going through.”