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 (https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/alexander-gardner-home-of-a-rebel-sharpshooter-gettysburg-from-gardners-photographic-sketchbook-of-the-war-1865)

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.

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