American photographer of Scottish birth. He was apprenticed to a jeweller (c. 1835–43) until his interest in optics, astronomy, chemistry, literature and social welfare led him to move to Glasgow. There he took a position as a reporter for the news journal Sentinel, of which he eventually became editor. He is believed to have been a self-taught photographer. Gardner had plans to found a Utopian socialist community in the USA, but when he emigrated in 1856 it was with a fare paid for by the photographer Mathew B. Brady. They had met in England in 1851 at the Great Exhibition. Brady appointed him manager of another branch of his gallery in Washington, DC, in 1858, after first giving him a position in his studio in New York.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Brady appointed Gardner to lead a photographic team to accompany the Union armies. Their aim was to make a potentially commercial record of the war. The photographs produced by this group constitute the first comprehensive photographic document of a war in all its aspects and thus a major development in the history of photojournalism. In 1862, however, Gardner argued with Brady over the issue of these photographs being published under Brady’s name. Gardner left Brady’s employ, taking with him a number of other photographers, as well as his negatives. He established his own studio and gained an appointment as Official Photographer for the Army of the Potomac. The particular privilege he enjoyed in this position enabled him to make documents of some of the most important events and people of the war period. His portraits of Lincoln (see W. Welling: Photography in America: The Formative Years, 1839–1900, New York, 1978, p. 144) are among the most famous in 19th-century photography, and his series of portraits of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and the views of their subsequent execution are among the masterpieces of photographic reportage. His photographs were direct, informative and unsentimental.
In 1866 Gardner published 100 original photographic prints in two volumes as Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, taken by a team of photographers. Each picture, for example A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep, Gettysburg, July 1863 (see Gardner, pl. 40), was individually credited and was accompanied by an explanatory text, most probably written by Gardner himself. Unfortunately, this project was not a financial success due to the national desire to forget the horrors of the event. Gardner also sought to sell his negatives to the government but met a similar lack of interest.
In 1867 Gardner became the Official Photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. He documented scenes along the lines in Kansas, West Mississippi and Missouri, showing American Indian life, railway construction and landscapes. He maintained his portrait studio in Washington, DC, during the 1870s and enjoyed a reputation as one of the most famous photographers of his era.
Grant B. Romer
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press