Author Interview--James Brookes (‘The Last and Most Precious Memento’)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature James Brookes to talk about his Civil War History article “‘The Last and Most Precious Memento’: Photographic Portraiture and the Union Citizen-Soldier” (CWH September 2019, Volume 65, No. 3).

James Brookes received his Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham in November 2019. He was a Smithsonian American Art Museum Predoctoral Fellow in 2018-2019. He has recently published “Images in Conflict: Union Soldier-Artists Picture the Battle of Stones River, 1862-1863” in Journal of American Studies (April 2019, awaiting print). He is currently a visiting lecturer at Newman University and research fellow for the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham.

James, to start, how did you get interested in Civil War photography and what do argue/suggest in your article?

JAB: I first became interested in Civil War photography during my undergraduate degree. Initially, I was fascinated by the iconic photographs of the war, but I was soon captivated by portraits of ordinary Americans after I attended a wet-plate photography demonstration and came to better appreciate the act of having one's picture taken in the 1860s. Whenever I visited Civil War exhibitions, soldiers' and civilians' portrait photographs were a common feature of the displays, but I found this wasn't reflected in scholarly writing to the degree that other representative forms like letters and diaries enjoy.

I argue that portrait photographs were significant vessels of personal identity during the Civil War. Much like letters, they were used by soldiers and civilians as mediators of distance, and to manage anxieties over death and disability. Americans were innovative and unprecedented in their use of portraits as surrogates for loved ones and as images to incite memories of home. Though photographs portraits are recognised as important cultural objects during the war, I argue that we have not fully acknowledged the multitude of ways that Civil War Americans employed them, nor that they could supersede other forms of connectedness between loved ones. 

Seeing a wet-plate photography demonstration must be a great experience. Could you run us through what forms and processes of photography existed during the Civil War?

JAB: With regards to photography processes, the wet plate collodion process is the most relevant to a discussion of soldiers' portrait photography during the Civil War. The collodion process was an improvement on the more cumbersome daguerreotype process and the calotype process (the latter being the direct forebear of the collodion process), but photographers still had to coat a photographic plate with collodion solution, sensitise it, expose it in the camera, and develop it within a short span of time (about ten minutes – but more quickly in a bustling commercial setting in a military camp). This meant that itinerant photographers had to travel with their entire set-up, darkrooms and all. Some photographers still practiced the daguerreotype process during the war, as it had become more accessible to patrons compared to in earlier decades, but photographers mostly produced pictures with the collodion process. 

More important to consider is form. Many forms existed with their own advantages and disadvantages. Daguerreotypes were cheaper during the war than in the 1840s and 1850s, but their mirror-like surfaces could make them difficult to view in rigorous military environs. Ambrotypes (photographs on glass) were on the decline by the Civil War, though were still in wide use. But soldiers frequently complained that ambrotypes arrived in camp cracked or smashed. Many didn’t consider ferrotypes (photographs on metal, and more popularly known as tintypes) the most aesthetically pleasing, but they were numerous owing to the fact they were so cheap and sturdy. One contemporary photographic journal even asked if anyone had ever heard of smashing a tintype and noted that they were much preferred by soldiers than any other form. They were quick to produce, and so itinerant photographers preferred to offer them. Cartes-de-visite (small paper photographs mounted on card) were the tintype’s main rival. Although rather delicate, their lightweight nature meant that they weren’t cumbersome to carry. Moreover, photographers could make multiple images from a single negative, and so they became popular items to trade with loved ones and acquaintances, so much so that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., titled them the “sentimental ‘green-backs’ of civilization.”

Your comments about the fast process of developing the plates always reminds me of what Gardner did at Antietam, but you are focused on the individual soldiers and using images as source material. How could we use a photograph instead of a written document to learn about soldiers and their experiences?

JAB: My Civil War History article wasn't all that reliant on photographs as source material, but it is an important resource for my wider research project. For this piece, I was interested in seeing how Union soldiers and civilians seized upon portrait photography to manage the inherent separations of war; whether temporal and spatial, or in terms of death. I was looking at a lot of letters, diaries, and post-war memoirs to see how soldiers and civilians explained the significance and use of photographs during the Civil War at home, in camps, on battlefields, and in hospitals. Consideration of use always necessitates a contemplation of audience. Whilst some individuals expected their photographs to be treasured privately, others wanted their pictures to be shown off by the recipient. This has a predictable outcome on the content and subject matter of those photographs. 

I'm currently writing my book proposal to convert my Ph.D. thesis into my first monograph. There, I use visual analysis to pursue a range of inquiries regarding Civil War soldiers' own visual culture, or their patronage and use of popular wartime pictorial culture. I've had the opportunity to use photographs and other pictorial forms as essential sources. Photographs provide us new ways to see how volunteers affirmed their new martial identities and expressed their motivations, and how they attempted to maintain connections to civilian spheres by including items from home or domestic backdrops. Most poignantly, we see soldiers and civilians keeping the dead close by displaying photographs of deceased comrades and loved ones in their own portraits. 

Moreover, it shows that volunteers in the 1860s were visually literate: they had matured in a society with increasingly pictorial elements in its culture. Soldiers understood photographs as a distinct medium to capture and disseminate representations of their identity in ways that were dissimilar to letter-writing, and they often prioritised pictures over text. Moreover, photographs allow us to see how volunteers were emulating (or rejecting) visualisations of citizen-soldier figures in popular culture. The idealised renderings of soldiers that littered patriotic stationery and pictorial newspapers, especially in the early-war period, were a point of reference for initiates into the military. When volunteers had a portrait taken that drew upon those representational conventions, they attempted to lay claim to those celebrated patriotic and masculine virtues. We can view portraits that don't draw upon those established stylistic strategies as reformulations of the popular figure (and what it represented), or even as rejections of it. Importantly, when African American troops had martial photographs taken, they were laying claim to a figure that was almost exclusively white in the popular imagination. 

It's also important to remember that the war saw the proliferation of what W. J. T. Mitchell titled "imagetexts". Pictures stood in a necessary relationship to text: soldiers enclosed photographs with letters, placed poems in their picture cases, doodled in their diaries, and annotated patriotic stationery. More broadly, print images were extensively titled and captioned and accompanied news reports. Images can't be analysed in isolation: they have to be interpreted in dialogue with a whole host of textual forms.

That is a very good point James and interpreting images seems like a difficult task as a result of the exposure time required. Is there a challenge with staged vs unstaged images. Most of the soldier portraits you mention in the article obviously are staged, but what does that tell us? In contrast, I once sat in a presentation where a person claimed that the famous picture of the African American laborers relocating bodies was staged because one of the skulls and one of the men looked directly into the camera--how would we be able to know some of this? Or the infamous images of dead bodies at Gettysburg?

JAB: The vast majority of Civil War photographs were in someway staged, as there was no instant snapshot during the war. The individuals in the background of the Cold Harbor image you've mentioned would have had to have posed in their positions for them to appear so distinctly whilst in the "act" of digging. There are some very interesting meanings to be drawn from that photograph about perceptions of white and black sacrifice during the Civil War, and that is in large part because so much obvious thought went into its composition. With regards to the Gettysburg photographs, William Frassanito has done some wonderful investigative work that confirms that a number of photographs were staged: the Devil's Den sharpshooter - who was moved and re-positioned with different props - being the most famous example.

In terms of soldiers' portraits, the idea of staging really is important. Photographic portraiture drew its conventions from painted portraiture (which frequently indulged in idealised representations of its subjects) and even to some degree from theatre (with the studio itself being viewed by some as a kind of stage). This is manifested in many ways: the backdrop used, the props displayed, the stance the soldier adopts, etc. There's an interesting tension here: who has the agency in determining the staging? I think in most cases ordinary soldiers wouldn't assert total agency over a photograph's composition, particularly in a busy camp environment where you had a profit-driven photographer ahead of you and a long queue of soldiers behind you. You find some portrait photographs where you can actually see the next soldier standing just in the shot, waiting to step in to have his photograph taken. Generally, I think the photographers directed their subjects, not to say that soldiers didn't have some choice in their stance, props, and appearance. 

When we think about Civil War soldiers' portraits and their intended meaning, it's important to keep these influences in mind. Of course, volunteers most often wanted to be pictured in martial ways, but to what degree is this influenced by societal expectation, especially considering the huge outpouring of patriotic imagery in the war's early years? Soldiers are consciously performing their patriotism, or their prioritising of other motivations and influences. This affirms that we should be taking portrait photographs seriously when we approach the archive of soldiers' wartime expression.