Old photographs have long fascinated archivists, historians, other researchers, and the public. The same applies to me. When my interest in history was initially awakened in the late 1950s, photographs were involved. My first visits to Civil War battlefields include connections to images (this is an image of me circa 1960 at Antienam), such as the one of the dead Confederate sniper in Devil’s Den at Gettysburg; I subsequently learned that the body had been moved and staged by the photographer, a not uncommon practice by these early photographers.
The use of images has gotten more sophisticated. They have moved from being used as devices to spice up histories to being recognized as historical sources worthy of careful research on their own. I was fortunate to have as my advisor in my history masters program at the University of Maryland, Walter Rundell, Jr., who used photographs as sources in his history of the early Texas oil industry and whose 1978 Society of American Archivists presidential address concerned photographs as historical evidence (“Photographs as Historical Evidence: Early Texas Oil,” American Archivist 41 [October 1978]: 373-398). Since those days of the rediscovery of archival images, we have had a succession of interesting histories, manuals, and theoretical treatises on photography and its uses and challenges.
A new book – J. Matthew Gallman and Gary W. Gallagher, eds., Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015) – suggests the continuing interest in images. The purpose of the book is described as follows: “This is a book about photographs, and about historians. The project began with a very simple observation. People who study the Civil War era spend an enormous amount of energy thinking about and talking about photographs. Yet, we seldom take the photograph as our subject, and we almost never share personal reflections that stray beyond our normal academic writing.” The editors asked an array of scholars “to select one photograph taken during the Civil War and write about it” (p. 2). The result is an interesting collection of essays that individuals interested in historical evidence and its use will find informative.
The volume includes twenty-six essays grouped in five parts – Leaders, Soldiers, Civilians, Victims, Places – with interpretations based on personal observations and archival research. Caroline E. Janney’s essay about a photograph of a family in a military camp provides an example of what these essays contribute: “I am drawn to this photograph time and time again because it offers an endless source of contemplation and emotional appeal. I cannot help but be fascinated by the myriad details, from the ceramic pitchers that seem out of place in a military encampment to the hole in the woman’s sweater that suggests her humble origins. But it also leaves me with more questions than it answers. Was it viewed during the war, or did it become popular only after Appomattox? Did the young woman and the children move with the regiment when it headed to the Virginia peninsula? Did they manage to avoid the devastating camp diseases? If the children survived, how did their wartime experiences shape their adult lives? We will never know. Even so, their image serves as a poignant reminder of how far-reaching the war even from the outset, how intimately it affected families – even how families ostensibly far from the front lines – and how families in turn affected the Civil War” (p. 119).
The book includes a brief bibliographic essay about Civil War photography and photography in general. What would have been useful is an essay drawing together various themes and approaches about using such images. The editors might also have included some references to writings about photographs by archivists, such as Joan Schwartz, concerning the theoretical perspective on images as sources; there is a rich literature in that sector that historians need to know about.