An exhibit of Civil War photography is on display during the month of April in the Katharine L. Boyd Library on the campus of Sandhills Community College. A local history group, the Rufus Barringer Civil War Round Table, is sponsoring the display.
The exhibit is a thin slice of the thousands of photographs taken during the conflict period. Most of the exhibit consists of reproductions, which acquaint the viewer with the faces of the famous and the unknown. Many of the subjects have somber expressions because it took one to several minutes for a photo exposure and it was difficult to hold a smile for such an extended time.
The quality and the sharpness of images is excellent. Some have been colorized using modern techniques, and can rival the quality of digital “selfies” today. A vast number were actually in 3-D and did not require expensive headsets or the electronics of today’s virtual reality.
The Ken Burn’s PBS series, The Civil War, would have been profoundly diminished without the poignant pictures from the period. When the Civil War started in 1861, the science of photography was only 22 years old. American photojournalism came of age during the war. Photography is one of the least under-stood and most overlooked aspects of the war, even though our interest in the war cannot be separated from its imagery.
The first photographs were mirror images created on highly polished, sheets of copper, called daguerreotypes, named after Louis Daguerre. They were replaced by the ambrotype, a photograph on glass, and then by the tintype. In 1860, the paper photograph appeared. A single glass-plate negative could produce limitless inexpensive copies.
As the Civil War started, the stereoscopic photograph appeared. A stereo view consisted of two nearly identical photographs taken with a camera with two side-by-side lenses about the same distance apart as the human eyes. When the card with the two images was viewed through a stereo viewer, the lenses enabled the eyes to combine the two photos into one, thus creating the illusion of depth.
The hand-held viewer was the equivalent of television today, transforming the American parlor from a sitting area into a home entertainment salon. By 1900, nearly every American family had a stereo viewer and a stack of stereo photographs. Oliver Wendell Holmes invented the first practical viewer in 1859. Stereoscopic photographs vividly brought the war into the parlors and living rooms of 19th-century America.
It was after the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), that Alexander Gardner captured the first views of dead soldiers where they fell, and electrified the public. The graphic images demonstrated the true horror of war; the images were real, and not the drawn sketches of artists and printmakers. Newspapers could not yet print photographs, so woodcuts and plate blocks were necessary for printing.
Also on display are the many books available in the Boyd Library that focus on Civil War photography.
The Rufus Barringer Civil War Round Table meets monthly at the Civic Club in Southern Pines. For information, call (910) 235-0946 or (910) 695-9058.