“Dark Fields of the Republic”: Alexander Gardner’s Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery

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The Lincoln glass-plate negative.

On a blustery Sunday afternoon, we stopped inside DC’s National Portrait Gallery to take in a new exhibit of Alexander Gardner’s photographs. The Gardner exhibit is the latest in a series of truly stellar presentations of Civil War materials occasioned by the war’s sesquicentennial at the Portrait Gallery; as if informed by the historic building’s own Civil War past life (it served as a hospital and the site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball–plus both Clara Barton and Walt Whitman worked in the building at various times), curators have pulled together a tremendous series of exhibits that explore the war’s ongoing impact on the American people. The Gardner exhibit continues this record of excellence.

Taking up a large portion of a wing on the museum’s second floor, the exhibit gives the viewer a thorough introduction to the enigmatic and still underappreciated work of Gardner, who began his career as an assistant of Mathew Brady and whose work is still trapped in Brady’s long shadow. “Dark Fields of the Republic” makes a strong case for why Gardner deserves to emerge from this shadow: his battlefield photos, portraits of Civil War luminaries (particularly Lincoln), and later work documenting Native Americans in the West is both visually arresting and fascinating from the perspective of narrative. For instance, Gardner took a series of photos immediately after the war’s conclusion that staged the men who found John Wilkes Booth planning their raid, or victorious Union generals huddled around a map, recreating a moment when the war’s outcome was not ordained. These images speak to the narrative quality of photographs in the nineteenth century–photographs were not expected to necessarily represent the reality of whatever they capture in the frame, but were manipulable images that imparted stories.

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Walt Whitman and unidentified companions, by Alexander Gardner.

We can see, therefore, how Gardner and his assistants believed that moving around dead bodies on a battlefield and arranging them artistically to tell a story was an acceptable action, as Gardner is believed to have done when photographing the aftermath of Gettysburg. The interpretive captions accompanying the Gettysburg photos convey the nuances of this controversy. But perhaps even more explanation is generated by seeing so much of Gardner’s work placed in chronological order: it’s fairly easy to see how a man who began by taking stagey photographs of families and self-portraits in full frontiersman garb would find a photograph’s story more compelling than its adherence to realism.

Though his battlefield photos are undeniably (if problematically) moving, Gardner’s bread and butter was his portraiture. His most famous portrait is part of the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection: the cracked plate portrait of the President, taken a few days before he was assassinated. The portrait is almost too laden with symbolism, with the weight of history, to derive much about Lincoln himself from it, but in Gardner’s other sittings with the president, there is wryness in the mouth, a familiarity in the way the eyeglasses are held, that bring Lincoln back to life. It’s wonderful to have all the Lincoln portraits together, and even more wonderful that the museum has put on display Gardner’s original glass-plate negative of an 1863 Lincoln portrait. Gardner, as the caption describes, was a master of evenly distributing collodion over the plate, resulting in the beautiful clarity of his images.

After the war, Gardner moved West, documenting Native American ways of life that were all to quickly disappearing. As the exhibit is presented, this westward movement is all part of the same gesture of U.S. empire preservation and extension, at all costs. Eventually, Gardner moved back East and gave up photography. Yet his images endure, as in his moving Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1865-66). The Sketch Book tells a story not unlike the one of Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces, a chronological rendering of the Civil War that attempts to find meaning in the country’s moment of precarity. Committed to narrativizing history, Gardner’s photographs remain enduring glimpses of a period that is always under revision, like the country they attempt to represent.

“Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs 1859-1872” is open at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, until March 16, 2016.

 

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