Images Of Blue Gray

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2008

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — It’s the war that made Margaret Mitchell famous. Let alone Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

And even in the high-tech world of the 21st century, the Civil War still captures the imagination of iPod and Wii devotees.

Now, an exhibit at the Huntington Museum of Art opening Sunday, July 27, shows the pain, bravery, horror and ingenuity of those who fought in the War between the States and the photographers on the sidelines documenting it.

Email newsletter signup

On display are 50 photographs from the David L. Hack collection that is permanently housed at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., that showcase the work of Union and Southern photographers, including the most famous, Mathew Brady.

“The variety of images. Everything from portraits of generals and presidents, even people who were spies for the South. It also documents the battles, Andersonville prison,” Jenine Culligan, senior curator at the museum, said. “They are really photographs of every aspect of the Civil War, even views of towns after the battles had taken place.”

It was the Civil War where the concept of photojournalism blossomed as these men lugging heavy equipment and volatile chemicals followed the troops across the North and South battle lines.

“The Civil War was the first war where people knew what was happening as it was going on because of the photography. They could see these images,” Culligan said.

Often the public didn’t see the actual photograph, but rather a line drawing made from it that would end up in weekly newspapers. There they could keep up with the massive casualties and battle victories as the fate of the country was left to the vagaries of war.

There are eight photographers featured with Brady, the one most immediately recognizable. However, many of Brady’s images were not actually taken by the famous photographer who had studios in New York City and Washington, D.C.

“Mathew Brady was probably the best businessman,” Culligan said. “What is interesting is that he didn’t take that many photographs himself. He had a lot of photographers who worked for him. They didn’t get any credit because he owned the studio.”

In fact, it was one of his studio photographers, Alexander Gardner, a Scottish immigrant who knew of the photography done during the Crimean War of 1854-1856, who suggested Brady document the civil conflict.

“They were making their money by documenting the war and selling their images. People were so interested,” Culligan said.

But there is another aspect of the exhibit, Culligan says, that should be appreciated: The extensive amount of work involved in the process of producing a single image.

“You really had to know what you were doing,” she said. “You had to spend a lot of time preparing glass plates. It had to stay wet while you were making the images. You were using this very flammable solution you would mix with ether and alcohol. It was very toxic.”

The Hack Collection was acquired in the late 1990s by the Chrysler Museum. Hack, who is a retired attorney, originally from New Jersey, began collecting large-scale photographs 25 years ago.

“They are extraordinary images,” Brooks Johnson, curator of photography at the Chrysler, said. “Some of them are quite rare. Many of them are on their original mounts. Frequently, when you see 19th century photography, people don’t show the original mounts. They have been removed or are in such bad shape. We have mounted these so people could see the entire mounting process in the 19th century.”

The exhibit opens with a reception at 2 p.m. July 27 and runs through Sept. 21. Admission is free to the reception where Johnson will lecture about the collection.