The United States of America remains as the most powerful nation on earth. Its political, social, economic and military influence across the globe cannot in any way be doubted as one of the best structural unit that has ever been combined or rather build by mankind. Yet, one cannot ignore the fact that this nation has a rich history that reveals the ups and downs that has enabled it to come this far. Among the historical issues or happenings that shaped and prepared it for such a time as this is the American Civil War. The American Civil War was fought between different states and other groups between 1861 and 1865. During this time, technology was of low quality and keeping records proved to be a challenge. In spite of these challenges, there were photographic devices at this time that were used to take photographs that still exist till this day and that have been used to study Civil War history. Among the authors that have written work on photography that is specifically associated with the Civil War is Alan Trachtenberg in his essay ‘Albums of War: On Reading Civil War Photographs’. This essay will review the work of Alan Trachtenberg in a bid to provide commented summary of his work on photography and the American Civil War.
Whereas photography has been taken as a hobby in most cases, it has also served as a way of storing or rather keeping evidence and preserving historical records as a whole. Reporters and the media at large have utilized the magic of the lens of a camera to capture different situations as seen in still motion and relay to the public the actual happening on the ground. In reference to Trachtenberg (1985), photographs have been found to create an image in the minds of its viewers a really picture of what a person could have seen had he or she been on the actual scene of a particular event (p.1). Therefore, whereas authors such as Alan Trachtenberg could have worked on ways of collecting and relaying back to the American people the actual events that took place long before they were born, he also manages to capture the importance of photography in keeping history of past events that have shaped the lives of different groups of people and societies in general across the globe. Therefore, the author begins in his essay by capturing the fact that Civil War was among the first war events to be captured by the lens of a photographic device.
Whereas war in the society has been found to be an element that brings separation rather than unification of the society, Trachtenberg (1985) argues that this does not remain the case always (p.2). The perfection towards war in itself is hostile and does not in any way permeate people to unite. Yet, there are small factor in war, that are in most cases ignored that have been found to be a uniting people of warring groups. This is photography. In quoting Trachtenberg (1985), ‘…photography not only histories, bringing “past history”, as another writer put it, “into the present tense,” but it discloses a hidden nerve within the event: the war as a unifying experience in out common “Anglo-Saxon” heritage…’ (p.2). The unity that is discussed here by the author may not be the common unity that one would desire to experience in his or her life, but it is a unity brought about by the shedding of one’s blood. This is with a bonus advantages in the fact that these photographs carry a lot of evidence that can not only be used for solving serious issues that could have been the cause of such a war but also as concrete material to study the past.
However, the ability of war photographs to carry concrete evidence that can be used to construct a particular story has been questioned by the author, i.e. Trachtenberg (1985). The author delves into the fact that regardless of their ability to carry and preserve evidence and form as materials that can be utilized by researchers and scholars in the modern world, there are certain limitations that are associated with photography. According to Trachtenberg (1985), just as other forms of evidence faces serious challenges in the hands of human beings and nature in general, photography too has its own shortcomings that may render it less effective in presenting the intended message (p.3). Trachtenberg (1985) begins by arguing that the Civil War photographs were taken by someone who was not a photographer himself but a proprietor that was on a mission to collect and sell photographs (p.3). Cimbala & Miller (2002) affirms that photography has a certain weakness when it is employed in as a tool of keeping and presenting evidence about historical events and in the study of the past by researchers and scholars by arguing that photography failed to present a clear picture about the Civil War to certain groups of people who had interest in this war.
There are various factors that have arguably been presented as important issues that need to be considered in order to ascertain the credibility or rather reliability of the photographs that have been taken with an aim of serving as evidence to the present and the future generation. One of these factors is motives. Different people across the globe who have taken photographs before have a particular motive that must be ascertained first before their photos can be taken as whole truth. In regard to the Civil War, Brady was perhaps one of the important figures who participated in the war, not by fighting but by collecting photographs with an intention of selling them (Trachtenberg, 1985, p.5). Therefore, in some cases he bought photographs and signed them under his name as the owner of these photographs.
Even though this is clear evidence that in some situations, photographs cannot be used as material evidence, this has not eroded away the importance of photography in the lives of human beings. Photographs have found more work rather than relying on preserving evidence alone. According to Trachtenberg (1985), keeping of photographs found its way into the home and specifically in the living room where photographs were kept as a sign of remembering certain events in the lives of the owner of the home as well as beautifying the living room (p.6). Whereas some photographs were presented by the stereoscope, later it emerged the album that made it even easier to preserve and distribute Civil War photographs across the United States of America during the civil war periods. As a result, it was argued at that particular time that whoever wanted to know how war was like needed not to be on the battlefront but to watch pictures that had been taken in the battlefield during the civil war (p.8).
Trachtenberg (1985) continues to argue in his essay that photography played an important in bringing into the limelight the horrible event or rather results of war, and in this particular case the civil war (p.10). Photographs had nothing to hide. Instead they presented the actual situation the way the situation was and this resulted in movements emerging to fight the mass murder or rather mass destruction abilities of war in the lives of human beings. On the other hand, photographs were able to bring the mind of the audience into the real battlefield as he or she encountered the really or rather actual happening on the battlefield without necessarily spending his or her time fighting to keep his or her life just to see how war was like (Cimbala & Miller, 2002, p.27). In other word, the generation during the Civil War period and the future generation could examine and study how this war was through the lens of a camera, i.e. through photographs.
Mass production of photographs was also an issue of concern during the Civil war period and a challenge in the whole scenario of photography. According to Trachtenberg (1985), business photography was marred by labor inequality or rather unfairness in the sense that the working conditions during the production of photographs were very poor and could not be improved on (p.11). There are two perspectives that are presented by the author in his article in regard to the relationship between labor and photography. To begin with, photography itself had an overall negative impact on labor as it denied those who were integrated in the line of production an opportunity to learn from what they saw on the photographs (p.11). In reality, it is argued that those that were directly involved in the production line failed in some cases to actually see the photographs they were producing. As a result, they were unable to learn from the same photographs that they themselves had produced. The second perspective that is presented by the author is the relationship between photography and artistry. Most artists, both professionals and amateurs were rendered jobless as people took after photography and avoided sitting for several hours to be drawn literary on paper.
There are different ways that were employed by different people in collecting and naming the Civil War photographs. Trachtenberg (1985) reiterates that different people that were involved in collecting photographs from the Civil War had to work out on inserting text in these photographs to enable the audience in future to determine the time and venue when the photograph was taken (p.12). In this regard, there are different ways that were employed in representing photographs that had been taken at different period of time. For instance, Gardner in his collection volumes of Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866), he placed a text opposite, together with a dated caption below every photograph (p.12). On the contrary, Bernard in his collection of Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (1866), he only attached a number and a caption to identify his sixty one photographs.
The photographs that were taken were meant to keep evidence of the war and produce it to the future generation. Therefore, naming these photographs was very important as it implied that future generation would be in a position to follow the events of the war. Therefore, to retell the Civil War story just the way it was and how it happened, naming these photographs and that in a correct way proved to be an important exercise. Similarly, it must be remembered that these photographs represented a period in the American history that shaped its future by laying a foundation for a united nation that would later on become the most powerful nation on earth. Therefore, the way these pictures were represented mattered a lot as they acted as a link between the past and the present, the living and the dead (Trachtenberg, 1985, p.23). In the same line of thought, these pictures represented war morals and how they were observed during the American Civil War.
Soldiers were also portrayed in a particular way by the photographs that were taken by photographers. Whereas most of them were seen as hardworking men who were committed to their country in terms of fighting what they believed was right, they were also portrayed in a negative way whereby they were seen as cruel men who were ready to massacre each other by championing what they believed to be true in their lives. For example, Bernard captured a modern soldier in his work as a person that was one-willed and therefore ready to destroy his enemy completely (Trachtenberg, 1985, p.24). In addition to this, the photographers also captured the war as a barbaric event in the history of mankind. This representation is important in the overall study of the history of war and how it relates to war in modern times (Dilworth, 2003, p.91).
Photography remains as one of the most important tool of keeping or rather gathering and recording important evidence that is needed in the study of mankind and past events that have shaped the course of his life. In this regard therefore, photography played an important role in keeping the memoirs of the American Civil War that took place between 1861 and 1866. in line with this, there are various issues that have been raised as a result of photography. One of these issues is how war is portrayed in photographs. Another issues is that has raised concerns is how photographs affect the labor market, especially in regard to artists; both emerging and professional artists. Similarly, different photographers were able to capture the war from different angles of their lens. As a result, the America Civil War has an opportunity to be told from different angles as one saw fit.