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Photography as Witness

Photographs of major historic events often help define collective memory or provide indisputable evidence of moments in history.


Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, (1865)

Alexander Gardner
(American, born Scotland. 1821–1882)

1865. Albumen silver print, 7 x 9" (17.8 x 22.9 cm)

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg is from Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865)—a collection of 100 photographs of the United States Civil War (1861–65). It shows the tragic aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, focusing on one dead solider lying inside what the photographer called a “sharpshooter’s den.” This photograph became the subject of controversy because later analysis revealed that Gardner had staged the image to intensify the emotional effect it would have on the viewer—a practice not uncommon at the time. Gardner moved the corpse of the dead solider and propped up his head to face the camera. The rifle next to the soldier’s was not his own, but rather a gun that Gardner carried with him.

The Civil War was one of the first wars to be documented by the relatively new invention of photography. Because of the still laborious and lengthy process of taking and developing photographs, early war photographers were limited to photographing campsites, military preparations, or the aftermath of battles rather than the action itself. Gardner was one of the most prolific photographers to document the conflict.

Rivals Off the Battlefield
At the beginning of the Civil War, Alexander Gardner worked as a photographer for the studio of Mathew Brady, leading a team of photographers that accompanied the Union army. Gardner left Brady’s studio in 1862, and by May 1863, he and his brother started their own studio that ultimately proved to be competition. When Brady petitioned Congress to buy his photographs of the Civil War, Gardner claimed it was his idea to create a photographic history of the war. Ultimately, Congress purchased images from both photographers.