Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Television of the 19th Century

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 13, 2016

When most people, myself included, think of American photographers working at the time of the Civil War, they think of Matthew Brady.  He was not, however, the only person taking photographs in the 19th century, and the Portrait Gallery's current show of images by Alexander Gardner may make you think twice about according Brady pride of place among early practitioners of the art.

Gardner worked with Brady before opening his own studio, and he continued the portrait work for which Brady is justly famous.  Gardner, however, did not remain indoors; he took his equipment to the battlefields of the Civil War and brought into the living rooms of "the folks back home" the realities (more or less - more on that in a moment) of armed conflict.   Americans, living in the height of the Victorian era, had romantic ideas of what war was about - after looking at these photographs, those ideas had to be abandoned in favor of a far more grim reality.

Of course, whenever the subject of a show is photography, the question of reality rears its head.  When one sees a photo, one thinks one is seeing a picture of something that actually happened.  As the National Gallery's 2013 show "Faking It" showed viewers, that's not always true.  Gardner was not someone who used the photographic process to fake his images, but he certainly did create images that he then photographed.  His photograph, "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" was supposed to show a dead sniper, fallen while attacking Union troops.  In reality, Gardner moved the body from the battlefield into a different area and pictured him with a gun he would not have been using.  Was this person a Confederate soldier who died at Gettysburg?  Certainly, yes.  Did he die in the way and place that Gardner's photograph showed?  Just as certainly, no.  It seems to me that war is horrible enough without creating tableaux designed to tug more strongly on the heartstrings.

Despite the notoriety that Gardner's battle photos won him, his most famous image is the one pictured above - the "cracked plate" Lincoln.  True confession: I don't quite see the fascination with this image.  There are several other, I think better, pictures of Lincoln on display in this show - this one just seems out of focus and ill-framed.  To me, it's simply a snapshot, not a portrait.  The fact that the plate is cracked through in the place in the image where Lincoln's head is situated, and that Lincoln would be shot in the head not long afterwards is to me a dubious hook on which to hang the description of "accidental masterpiece."  However, it has become one of the most famous and iconic pictures in the history of American photography, so if you go to the show, by all means, see it.

The show itself is well done; I give the lighting director a lot of credit, as the images require low light in order to preserve them, but viewers need to be able to see.  I found my eyes adjusted quite quickly, and I had no problem in seeing both the wall notes and the photographs.  The show is set up in a hallway, with pieces in rooms on both sides and in the hallway itself.  You go through two rooms on one side, that are his early works and Antietam photographs, then through the rooms on the other side, which are later Civil War photographs, as well as images depicting the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination.  Finally, Gardner's photographs of the West and the Native Americans who inhabited it are hanging in the hallway.

Verdict: This is a large show, with lots of notes to read.  If you work any distance from the Portrait Gallery, you'll have a hard time seeing the whole thing in a lunch hour.  If you are interested in photography, the Civil War or depictions of Native Americans in the 19th century, by all means, make time to see this exhibit.

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