Same Camera, Different Century: Capturing Civil War Sites, 150 Years Later

Sep 17, 2012
Originally published on September 17, 2012 5:39 pm

Believe it or not, there's a lot of food involved in wet-plate photography. Egg whites (albumen) are used to make the glass plates adhesive to the light-sensitive chemicals. And one way to keep the plates from drying out after processing is to coat them in honey. It's also physically demanding, so you get really hungry.

These are the things I learned in the field with wet-plate photographer Todd Harrington. For the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, we asked him to retrace the steps of Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner. We wanted to capture the same scenes with the same equipment — to see how things have changed. (Kind of like the nerd's version of Dear Photograph.)

Turns out, not much has changed. The land surrounding that historic battle site has been beautifully preserved. We arrived early one morning this month as the park staff was pitching tents in preparation of the anniversary festivities. But at some of the peripheral sites where Gardner photographed, a serene quiet fell over the healed landscape.

Of course, there are traces of modernity — like telephone lines, paved roads and Porta-Potties. But the main difference between Gardner's original images and the ones re-created by Harrington is the one thing that made Gardner's so memorable: the bodies of fallen soldiers.

One reason we were so interested in this particular set of images — that is, the ones Gardner took at Antietam — is because in his day, those images were groundbreaking. Up to that time, war photography tended to portray a rosy picture of war, like heroic soldiers posing for portraits after battle.

The day of fighting at Antietam remains the bloodiest in American military history. And for the first time, Gardner turned the lens on the dead soldiers awaiting burial. The photos were displayed in New York City about a month after the battle. As Harrington told me: "It was consternation. No one had ever seen anything like that. It horrified the public."

We also wanted to gain a better appreciation of what Gardner's work entailed. And let me just say: It's crazy difficult. (Meanwhile, I was documenting the whole process on Instagram, and don't even know how to begin reconciling that.)

"It was quite a herculean effort to get up here carrying all your encumbrances," Harrington explained. Just to get to Antietam, Gardner would have packed up all of his equipment, fragile plates and chemicals — plus enough food — into his wagon. He would have made the 70-mile commute from Washington, D.C., along bumpy, unpaved roads, with the threat of Confederate cavalry along the way.

Once at the site, he had to figure out a strategic place to set up his portable darkroom — and then lug his heavy camera around the hilly terrain where bodies had already been sitting out in the sun for days, if you can imagine the smell.

There are more than a dozen steps involved in each exposure — and, therefore, about a dozen variables that could go wrong. It took Harrington a full day's work to get six successful images — a relatively productive day. Granted, his task entailed the additional obstacle of finding the exact spot where Gardner stood, and the exact camera angle, which was no easy feat.

"It seems very, very difficult to work in that kind of environment. But he did — and he did fabulous at it," Harrington concluded at the end of the day.

"Again, you're making your film every time; you're carefully composing; there are so many things that could go wrong," he says. "We're just pleased he was as accomplished as he was to give us a legacy to study."

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To mark the 150th anniversary of the battle, Todd Harrington, himself a photographer, set out to recreate some of Gardner's most famous Antietam images, using the same angles and the same technology. Todd Harrington joins us now. Welcome to the program, Todd.

TODD HARRINGTON: Well, thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So before we get to your project, set the scene for us. It's fall of 1862, why did these photos matter?

HARRINGTON: Well, the photographers located near Washington, D.C., Matthew Brady's firm - I think they realized early on in the conflict that to be able to document the Civil War that was taking place was a saleable item to them. I'm not going to make any apologies for them. I think they were very mercenary in their motives. They tried to document the first battle of Manassas. Matthew Brady was not able to get there in time. He sent photographers down to the peninsula with McClellan's army. They weren't able to get close enough to document a fresh battlefield as it appeared immediately after a conflict.

CORNISH: So Todd, tell us more about the technology that Gardner used. What were they using at the time? What are you using now?

HARRINGTON: In 1839, Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype. It allowed the masses to now get a photographic image of themselves. The problem with it was there wasn't any way to make copies of that image. So they were one-offs, essentially. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the web plate collodion process and it allowed a reasonable exposure and allowed multiple prints to made of a single collodion negative. By the 1860s, it was the predominant form of photography used by the photographic industry at that time.

CORNISH: Apparently these images were known for their clarity.

HARRINGTON: Absolutely. The web plate collodion negative is phenomenal, the level of detail you can get from these images. Essentially you have to make your film for every image that you take. So you start out from scratch with a raw piece of glass, you flood it with a substance called collodion, the collodion is then sensitized in a silver nitrate bath. You have to make the image, bring it back to your dark box, or dark room, fix the image and then store it, all before it dries.

CORNISH: And they were doing this on the battlefield essentially?

HARRINGTON: They had to do this on the battlefield, which, as you can imagine, was horrendous conditions.

CORNISH: These images also were an early kind of 3D, correct? I mean these were in stereo?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, Gardner set off to do these images using a stereo camera. The stereo camera has two lenses, it sees essentially the way that our eyes would see a scene. And the stereo effect, which is fooling your brain into seeing 3D, is then conveyed. They were extremely popular at the time. People didn't travel very far at that time. So to be able to see a 3D photograph of the Holy Land or the castles in Spain or something of that, was exciting. It was great entertainment.

CORNISH: You were saying that this was very exciting for people but listening to it now, it seems also quite strange because the intensity of the images merge with a kind of popular platform. I mean, selling these images of war seems macabre, I don't know other word.

HARRINGTON: I think that, as now, the public as a rule has a general sense of macabre curiosity. If you have something that is forbidden, you want to see it. There was sort of a lot of people who were shocked by these images but it really took them to a place that went beyond the casualty list that they saw every day in their local town. And it, I think, really put the true face of war in their minds. And from then on, we've had battlefield photographers in every conflict since.

CORNISH: Todd Harrington, thank you so much for talking with me.

HARRINGTON: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Photographer Todd Harrington. To see his photographs of the Antietam battlefield alongside Alexander Gardner's originals, go to our website Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.