THE RIGHT-HAND BRACKET
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE MOST HISTORICALLY ESSENTIAL IMAGES from photography’s first decades were created without much public awareness of their authors, as many of the art’s earliest practictioners labored unsung and uncelebrated. In painting, drawing, poetry or literature, tracing the creators of the great works of the 1800’s has proven far easier than crediting those who made the first world’s first immortal photographs. The feeling that the world could, should be documented far preceded the notion that individual voices in that historical work should receive their due.
In some ways, the American Civil War served as the launchpad for the first photographers to be personally recognized and marketed as a “brand”. At the beginning of the conflict, only Matthew Brady, who operated the first true professional studio out of New York, was anything like a household name to the general public, with the illuminati of the Victorian age beating a path to his door for their moment of immortality. Once war broke out, Brady exported his fame by dispatching several wagons of mobile darkrooms across the country, documenting the North/South carnage in a way that had never before been attempted anywhere on earth.
It was inevitable that at least a few members of the army whose war images were universally credited as “photo by Brady” would aspire to emerge from their anonymity, and one of the first such to succeed in going solo was Alexander Gardner, a Scottish immigrant who, like Brady, had initially distinguished himself chiefly as a portraitist. In one of history’s great in-your-lap twists, Gardner landed one of the grimmest photographic assignments of the 19th Century when, at the war’s end, he was chosen to create portraits of the conspirators who had aided John Wilkes Booth in murdering Abraham Lincoln.
Visiting the prisoners (including Lewis Powell, above) in their cells, Gardner snapped images that can strike the modern viewer as remarkably informal and candid, even contemporary in their aspect. And then, within days, he suddenly reverted back to his wartime role as a pure chronicler, assigned to document the plotters’ executions. His before-and-after series of the hangings, gruesome as they were, were also, for a grieving nation bent on revenge, in high demand, marketed on post cards, magazine covers, photo-derived lithographs and even glass slides for magic lantern projectors. Matthew Brady may well have provided the left-hand bookend for a national tragedy, but Alexander Gardner provided the right-hand one. And in between those brackets, the art of photography was changed forever.
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