The image may be hard to decipher at first, but squint a little and the crumpled, lifeless bodies of Confederate soldiers materialize. The bodies twist and melt into each other, eventually blurring out. It’s difficult to tell if the line ends or is swallowed up by the ominous black shadows in the distance. Two dark, faceless forms loom over the ditch, looking upon the carnage with complete calm.
[cleeng_content id="953290080" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]An active imagination might perceive these ghostly figures as specters of death watching over their most recent kill.
The photograph was taken after the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The Civil War was only the fourth war to take place after the invention of photography but undoubtedly the best covered of the 1800s. Intrepid photographers of the conflict, such as Mathew Brady, helped pioneer wartime photojournalism.
Alexander Gardner, one of a team of photographers Brady assembled to cover the war, traveled to Antietam two days after the battle to photograph the scene. Brady collected the resulting images into an October 1862 New York exhibition entitled “The Dead of Antietam.”
The pictures shocked the public. They were unaccustomed to such realistic scenes of violence. Paintings had showcased gratuitous gore for centuries, but photographs were different. They carried the expectation of accuracy.
It’s hard for a modern audience to imagine life without believable reproductions of death. In the 1860s, though, people who hadn’t been in a war couldn’t fathom what it really meant in terms of suffering and loss of life. As the New York Times stated at the time: if Brady “has not brought bodies and lain them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
But what if the scenes were not entirely accurate? Would that lessen the legitimacy of their impact? Brady and his photographers had a tendency to move and pose some of their subjects for more dramatic compositions. Does that change anything?
The images are still real. The men are still dead. The photographer simply decided they hadn’t fallen in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.
In the early days of photography, people believed photographs captured the whole and infallible truth. But as we know, photographers make choices about their subjects. At Antietam, Gardner decided to photograph a wide shot of soldiers in a ditch. The forms fuse together and blend in with the soil. No faces are visible. This dehumanizes them as discarded carrion but simultaneously allows the viewer to project any identity onto them. That dead boy could be a brother, son, husband. With that opportunity for personalization, Gardner pulled on his audience’s most sensitive heartstrings.
The shadows that spread up the ditch are downright eerie. Their presence was likely unintentional, but imperfections in the image still challenge the trustworthiness of photography. The darkness swallows up the corpses as it trickles inexorably down the line. A viewer might personify these shadows as death itself or even imbue symbolic significance of the darkness that follows in the wake of war.
The shadowy overseers are another conscious decision. Gardner could easily have asked them to move. Instead they remain, surveying the dead, appearing to converse like merchants inspecting wares. Gardner may have meant to showcase the callous disregard for human life displayed by those in charge of the war efforts.
Considering these small but crucial details, it’s clear why these photographs haunted Northerners. Unlike their neighbors in the South, who often saw battles fought in their backyards, many had no concept of the slaughter that accompanied war. The photographs opened their eyes. A painting could be dismissed as the product of the artist’s imagination but photographs, at this time, could only be manipulated so far. Gardner may have staged certain elements, but the dead soldiers were real. By making imagery of death so prominent in his photographs, he forced the public to admit that reality contained the same horrors.
– Megan Balser grew up in Jefferson County. A student at Savannah College of Art and Design, she is spending part of her summer break from school working for the Spirit of Jefferson. Send feedback on this column to her in care of Spirit editor Rob Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org.