Photography Is Traumatic: Alexander Gardner’s Constructions of the Civil War

Here we go again! Another attempt at making an argument and supporting it. Thesis practice, ahoy!

I previously wrote a short essay on Corinne May Botz’s series The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which were constructions of crime scenes made in dollhouses. I will now write an essay about a similar– but not at all the same– body of work made over a century ago by Alexander Gardner. His photographs of the American Civil War were constructed after the fighting was over, but with real corpses, not dolls. The Civil War was a very traumatic time in American history, as brother fought brother, medicine was anything but advanced, and the death tolls were devastatingly high. Photography was still young when the Civil War broke out, so it was nearly impossible to take photos of the fighting while it was happening, because, well, the photographer wasn’t going to be able to load the camera fast enough, and who wants to stand in the middle of a field with musket bullets whizzing past? So, photographers like Gardner had to have a hand in creating the scenes, to attempt to capture trauma after the fact.

Gardner and Botz are both photographers who photographed constructions of trauma rather than in-action trauma. What does it mean to photograph trauma en-post? Is a photograph still inherently traumatic if the scene is a construction or even, to some extent, fictional? Photography is a medium references traumatic language and distortion of time (often a side-effect of a traumatic event,) and therefore it can be argued that the medium can still be used to capture the traumatic, even if the trauma has passed or is in any way constructed.

For example, Alexander Gardner’s most famous photograph, The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, taken in 1863. The Museum of Modern Art succinctly explains why this photograph is relevant to the history of photography (and, well, the history of America.):

Alexander Gardner prolifically documented the American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg is from his Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865), a collection of 100 photographs of the conflict. The image represents the tragic aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg (which caused the largest number of casualties of the entire war) by focusing on a single dead solider lying inside what Gardner called a “sharpshooter’s den.” Later analysis revealed that he had staged the image to intensify its emotional effect. Though this practice was not uncommon at the time, its discovery made the photograph the subject of controversy. Gardner moved the soldier’s corpse and propped up his head so that it faced the camera. He then placed his own rifle next to the body, emphasizing the soldier’s horizontality and the cause of his death.

— MOMA (

Image result for rebel sharp shooter

Even though The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter is staged, there are still components that make the photograph resonate the traumatic. The first and most obvious component is that Gardner (or one of his assistants,) actually dragged a corpse to into this position. The subject of the image is truly dead, a result of the battle at Gettysburg. Because a corpse is there, and based off of historical knowledge of the events that transpired at Gettysburg, it can be safely assumed that the subject of the image died in the battle– a trauma. However, as explained above, it was difficult to make photographs of the action of war due to the technological inhibitions of the time period, so Gardner had to make do with what he had. And, thinking about the language of photography, Gardner “shot” this image. He shot the subject in another way.

Looking back at my previous analysis of Botz’s work is helpful in figuring out how trauma is present in Gardner’s photos from the past. When talking about her Nutshell Studies of Explained Death, Botz speaks about photography’s relationship with time: “Some say photographs ‘interrupt’ the flow of time, yet taking pictures… made me feel like I was entering the moment, awaking the stasis, producing life… Like a person, the Nutshells appear to be continually changing– becoming more fragile, smaller, slightly larger, more obviously dead.” Comparing Botz’s photographs of constructions with Gardner’s, while keeping Botz’s words in mind, opens up a new understanding to how trauma and photography live together. Gardner may not have been able to photograph the traumatic events of the American Civil War while they were happening, but by dragging the corpse, setting up the camera, and capturing the image he was able to bring the trauma to life for people back home who were not fighting in the war.

When a constructed trauma is photographed, it transcends the boundaries of time, much like trauma itself.

Photography Is Traumatic: Corinne May Botz

Hey friends! I’m getting prepared to write my thesis next semester, so it’s time to look at some photography and make arguments about it. Here we go!

Photography denotes reality, but can it denote the complex reality that comes with experiencing trauma? Trauma results from an individual undergoing an event that is so distressing that their means to cope is eclipsed. Photography may not be able to fully capture the deeply depressing or disturbing feelings behind trauma, but it can evoke those feelings in a viewer, depending on the content of the image and the presentation. The nature of photography itself aids in the creation of the traumatic image; the photograph is created by mechanical means, to stop time and freeze it in a moment that can be revisited. The experience of trauma is similarly fixed and long-lasting, a moment that is forever imprinted in the mind of the traumatized. Because the nature of photography is so entwined with the actual experience of trauma, a photograph can “capture the shrapnel of traumatic time.” [1]

The experience of living with trauma varies from person to person, but there are a few characteristics of suffering that are universal. First, the “re-experiencing,” which can be a flashback, an intrusive recollection of the events, or a bad dream. Essentially, these unwanted images of the event crop up and distress the victim, who relives the painful experience. Photography also does this: it takes a specific moment in time and freezes it, making it a visual moment able to be revisited.  Barthes mentions that the photograph is “in essence, a memory but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter memory.”[1] Barthes essentially argues that the photograph replaces the memory itself, that we no longer remember the event itself, just the photographs of it. This is true for trauma as well, as the traumatized individual may not remember the specifics of the event and may have gaps in their memory, but a simple trigger is enough to send them into a flashback, to relive the images forever frozen by the event. “As Barthes puts it, the photograph may be regarded as a ‘temporal hallucination… a mad image.’”

Another characteristic of trauma that is similar to the nature of photography is part of the jargon associated with mechanical art. Words like “take”, “capture”, and “shoot” have violent connotations. Traumatic events have history invested in these words. Like being taken or captured, as a victim of a kidnapping; being shot at the scene of a crime or in the throes of war. It feels as though photography could be a synonym for trauma, as they share many of the same verbs. This is why photography and trauma go together so well—their natures are intertwined.

Corinne May Botz is an artist who explores trauma in her work. Her series, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death was a seven-year project where she photographed miniatures of crime scenes. But, these weren’t her own constructions: the miniatures were actually constructed by master criminal investigator, Frances Glessner Lee, who founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases to train detectives with finding visual evidence. Botz explains:

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is an exploration of a collection of eighteen miniature crime scene models that were built in the 1940’s and 50’s by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence.

The constructions are disturbingly domestic, a somber reminder that traumatic events happen in all spaces, especially within the “safe” space of the home. The tableaus themselves are photographic, because “continuous action cannot be represented, each model is a tableau depicting the scene at the most effective moment, very much as if a motion picture were stopped at such a point.” Just like how a photograph freezes a moment in time, Lee created her constructions as a stopped moment in time for future detectives to investigate. This phenomenon of stopped time is very similar to the experiencing of trauma and lost time, as discussed in previous paragraphs.

The tableaus were created by Lee, but what of Botz’s photographs of them? Let’s take a look.

Three Room Dwelling (gun) These are just three photographs of many (she worked on this project for seven years– there are a lot of photographs,) and each one has elements that speak to Botz’s project as a whole. There is something beautiful about the colors, their childlike quality (as it is a dollhouse,) the floral decor, the toys… Surely these are not criminal spaces? However, the details give it away. The shotgun silhouette and the blood stain on the wallpaper that almost blends in with the floral pattern is one of the more obvious traumas. The tiny little shoe hanging off of a girl’s foot– why are her feet floating off of the ground? Is that a rope? Oh no, it seems that she has been hanged. The nursery, with the out of focus rocking horse in the foreground, the crib with the pink blanket, the matching wall paper with bloodstains splattered near where a child’s head should be… The constructions themselves are horrific, but Botz’s rendering of the scene with her lens makes them traumatic by cropping into a specific space– a frozen moment in time within a frozen moment in time– and gives the viewer the hints to what occurred in these imagined spaces.

As complex as trauma may be, photography is a medium that has risen to the challenge of denoting it. Trauma, in all of its forms, has always given humanity much to talk and make art about, and photography is a means to capture the nature of unfathomable events. Because photography is a medium that is referential, how can anyone resist the urge to create a means to talk about traumatic events, which are oftentimes so personal and difficult to put into words? Photography’s very nature, to its core, is reminiscent of trauma. Even though it is impossible to make someone feel the same trauma or experience that someone else has, and even though photography has its limitations, it makes sense that someone interested in portraying such difficult events would turn to it for assistance. Botz is just one artist who has taken art and photography and made it evoke the feelings of trauma. There are plenty of photographs of the trauma of war found in photojournalism and documentary photography, but these images shock the viewer—Botz’s work makes the viewer contemplative about the banality of trauma, how evil happens even in the most domestic of spaces– especially in the most domestic of spaces. Photography may be referential, but, as Botz proves, it can also be traumatic.

[1] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 52.

[2] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 54.

[1] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 7.

Constructions of Childhood Trauma

Last time I checked in with my work, I shared my book, which is a work in progress. I haven’t given up on that– never fear– but I have spent the last month and or so photographing my life away. As you do.

I’ve been dragging around my handy-dandy 4×5 camera and constructing scenes for it.

My work explores the complexities of childhood sexual trauma, identity, and memory through constructed photographs, the personal archive, and metaphor. Childhood sexual abuse is a topic that many shy away from, but I wish to create a safe space to talk about these issues, especially since they are so prevalent. This kind of abuse is hiding in plain sight. By working in the studio, in the real world, and in a world of make-believe, I intend to create tableaus that draw a viewer in and make them contemplate and uncover the trauma hidden in the images.

By using a large format camera, a saturated color palette, and childhood symbols, I create tableaus that subvert the connotations of an idyllic childhood. The use of a large format camera allows the images to be huge and immersive. My color palette references bubble gum, cartoons, and children’s bedrooms. The toys are the toys of the every-child; recognizable and therefore a vessel to project the personal onto.

The act of constructing these scenes harkens back to playtime as a child, where we created our own worlds. I am now creating plays for the camera, drawing from my own experience as a survivor of sexual abuse, to create a visual language that can be universally understood. There is a delicate balance I work from, teetering on the fine line between chaos and order, awful and sweet, and presence and absence. Materiality assists me in exploring these binaries, as I use dollhouses, bed sheets, and obsessive collections. The anxiety found in the images reflects the anxieties of not only my experiences, but the experiences of others who have suffered and survived by any means necessary.

This current work is a long term project that I am looking forward to continuing. Childhood sexual abuse is a topic that is ingrained in our cultural psyche, but is hardly ever spoken about. By using my personal experiences, my hope is to open up a space where others can share their stories. To reconfigure the cultural matrix to include this topic is my ultimate goal.

I have a lot of ideas left in me and some metaphors to explore. 4×5 is making me really slow down and pay attention to my process– and can you blame me when it is about $5 a shot? Yeesh. Despite that, I’m really excited about this new work and I feel like everything is starting to come together. I worked last year on installations and now I’m basically making installations to photograph. Things DO make sense! Wow!

Happy Shooting!