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Photography as Witness

Photographs of news stories and major events can often shape collective memory and how history is written and understood.

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, 6 13/16 × 8 13/16" (17.3 × 22.4 cm)

Alexander Gardner prolifically documented the American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg is from his Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865), a collection of 100 photographs of the conflict. The image represents the tragic aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg (which caused the largest number of casualties of the entire war) by focusing on a single dead solider lying inside what Gardner called a “sharpshooter’s den.” Later analysis revealed that he had staged the image to intensify its emotional effect. Though this practice was not uncommon at the time, its discovery made the photograph the subject of controversy. Gardner moved the soldier’s corpse and propped up his head so that it faced the camera. He then placed his own rifle next to the body, emphasizing the soldier’s horizontality and the cause of his death.

Photography was still a relatively new invention in the mid-19th century, and the Civil War was one of the first conflicts to be documented. Because the process of taking and developing photographs at this time was lengthy and labor-intensive, early war photographers were limited to capturing campsites, military preparations, or the aftermath of battles. The action itself happened too rapidly for their cameras to be able to record.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

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

Questions & Activities

  1. Debating Gardner

    Reflect. Does knowing that Gardner staged this photograph make it less valuable as a document of the Civil War? Why or why not?

    Write. In a one- or two-page essay, write a response in which you argue your views on this subject.