Retracing The Steps Of A Civil War Photographer

Today's 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam got us thinking: What if Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner could revisit some of the original sites he photographed? If he used his equipment today, what would the images look like? That is: How have the landscapes changed — or stayed the same?

How These Work

The image you see below was shot in 2012 by wet plate photographer Todd Harrington. He retraced Gardner's steps at Antietam, using the same type of equipment: a stereo wet plate camera and glass plates. If you toggle using the "now" and "then" buttons, another image fades in and out: That's what Gardner captured in 1862.

What's striking is how, actually, not much has changed. Trees have gotten bigger and roads have been paved. If you look closely at the Dunker Church image, you'll see portable toilets in the background; telephone poles along Hagerstown Pike; construction cones sitting on Burnside Bridge. But what's haunting is that the major difference between now and then is a lack of bodies.

What's also remarkable is that it took Harrington a full day's work to re-create just six images — not a job for the seekers of instant gratification. He'll be discussing the process on All Things Considered today.

What's 'Stereo'?

That basically means the camera had two lenses, which created two side-by-side exposures on one plate. When you make a print, and glue it on a card, you've got some Civil War-era entertainment: stereographs. When the cards are seen through a stereo viewer, the images appear 3-D. (Gardner's original plates were indeed stereographic, but many were digitized — as you see here — as individual images by the Library of Congress.)

Some More Background

Shortly after the Battle of Antietam — the bloodiest single day in American military history — Gardner changed photographic history. Until that time, many Americans "still clung to the view that this war was a noble, glorious, even romantic undertaking," NPR librarian Kee Malesky explains, and war-related images traditionally reinforced that.

But Gardner was a mercenary photographer. He made money by either photographing celebrities, like President Lincoln, or by documenting the hot news stories of the day — in this case, the war.

So he turned his lens (or lenses) on a sight that had never been seen by the general public: dead, bloated corpses; the grim reality of war. The images were shown in New York City about a month after the Battle of Antietam. Needless to say, the public was aghast.

Our view of war isn't the only thing that has changed since then. In Gardner's day, it was somewhat common practice for photographers to move bodies or objects to stage a more "photogenic" scene. For that reason, some might doubt the accuracy of Gardner's images. But there's no belittling the impact they had at the time.

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