Making Photography Matter: A Viewer's History from the Civil War to the Great Depression

Making Photography Matter: A Viewer's History from the Civil War to the Great Depression

by Cara A. Finnegan

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Photography became a dominant medium in cultural life starting in the late nineteenth century. As it happened, viewers increasingly used their reactions to photographs to comment on and debate public issues as vital as war, national identity, and citizenship.

Cara A. Finnegan analyzes a wealth of newspaper and magazine articles, letters to the editor, trial testimony, books, and speeches produced by viewers in response to specific photos they encountered in public. From the portrait of a young Lincoln to images of child laborers and Depression-era hardship, Finnegan treats the photograph as a locus for viewer engagement and constructs a history of photography's viewers that shows how Americans used words about images to participate in the politics of their day. As she shows, encounters with photography helped viewers negotiate the emergent anxieties and crises of U.S. public life through not only persuasion but action, as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252039263
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 05/30/2015
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Cara A. Finnegan is an associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs.

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Making Photography Matter

A Viewers History from the Civil War to the Great Depression

By Cara A. Finnegan


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09731-7


The Presence of Unknown Soldiers and Imaginary Spirits

Viewing National Grief and Trauma in the Civil War Era

It was in evidence that persons had been honestly deceived by their imaginations. —"Home and Foreign Gossip,"

Harper's Weekly, May 15, 1869

In the fall of 1862 Oliver Wendell Holmes learned his son had been shot in the neck at the battle of Antietam. Upon receiving the news at home in Boston, the poet, medical doctor, Harvard University professor, writer, and photography enthusiast commenced a journey by train and wagon to find him. Antietam was the bloodiest action of the Civil War, costing more than six thousand American lives in just two days of fighting; another fifteen thousand soldiers were wounded. Holmes eventually found his son, the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., safe and recovering from a wound that was less severe than originally thought. Holmes Sr. reflected on his experience in an essay published in the December 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly called "My Hunt After the Captain." Writing of his visit to the battlefield just days after the fighting concluded, he wrote:

We stopped the wagon, and, getting out, began to look around us. Hard by was a large pile of muskets, scores, if not hundreds, which had been picked up and were guarded for the Government. A long ridge of fresh gravel rose before us.... Other smaller ridges were marked with the number of dead lying under them. The whole ground was strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat. I saw two soldiers' caps that looked as though their owners had been shot through the head. In several places I noticed dark red patches where a pool of blood had curdled and caked, as some poor fellow poured his life out on the sod.

In telling his story of visiting the battlefield, Holmes writes as a kind of camera, offering the reader verbal snapshots of the tragic visual spectacle he encountered.

On December 10, 1862, a newspaper called the Boston Investigator noted the appearance of the December issue of Atlantic Monthly and pronounced it "very able." "Among the many admirably written articles," the Investigator commented, was the essay titled "My Hunt After the Captain." Yet at the same time that it praised Holmes's photographic prose, the Boston Investigator was embroiled in a skirmish over what it viewed as a much less savory photographic practice. Since early November two spiritualist newspapers, New York's Herald of Progress and Boston's Banner of Light, had been publicizing the discovery of so-called spirit photographs by one William H. Mumler of Boston. An amateur photographer and engraver by trade, Mumler claimed to have produced photographic portraits with an added bonus: not only was the sitter represented, but a ghostly spirit hovering around the sitter would sometimes appear as well. And sitters, the spiritualist newspapers tantalizingly reported, frequently recognized those spirits as loved ones long dead.

Claiming to be no spiritualist himself, Mumler passed along news of his discovery to a friend, who in turn shared it with the spiritualist papers. In its issue of the first of November 1862, the Herald of Progress announced, "We have been placed in possession of an account of events transpiring in Boston, which give promise of opening to the world a new and most satisfactory phase of Spiritual Manifestations." According to sources in Boston, the first "spirit photograph" was a self-portrait of the photographer that included the form "of a young girl apparently sitting in the chair, which appeared on developing the picture, greatly to the surprise of the artist." Speaking with a photographer friend, Mumler was told that it was likely the glass he used had not been cleaned properly before exposure, thus leaving a latent, older image on the plate. Mumler accepted this explanation and repeated it when showing the image to friends. But on one of those friends, "who I knew was a Spiritualist," Mumler decided to play a littlejoke: "I therefore showed him the picture, and with as mysterious an air as possible, but without telling an untruth, which Mr. P. T. Barnum calls 'drapery,' I stated to him 'that this picture was taken by myself when there was no visible person present but myself.'" Mumler signed the back of the resulting carte de visite with the following winking message: "'This photograph was taken of myself, by myself, on Sunday, when there was not a living soul in the room beside me—'so to speak.' The form on my right I recognize as my cousin who passed away about twelve years since.'"

The Herald of Progress was not quick to embrace the new discovery as absolute proof of spirits made visible. Yet it wrote suggestively, "This singular freak in chemical art, if it be no more, or the new manifestations of spirit power, if it be such, commands most earnest attention and inquiry." Indeed, the newspaper continued to pay close attention; during the next six weeks the Herald of Progress published no fewer than ten articles on the question of spirit photography. The curious discovery spread quickly to non-spiritualist newspapers around the country as well, which noted with some amusement the apparent ability of Mumler "to produce photographs of spirits around his human sitters," spirits who had been "recognized as friends that once lived on earth." Soon Mumler found himself in the spirit photography business. Boston's own spiritualist paper, Banner of Light, maintained a tone similar to that of the Herald of Progress. Dr. A. B. Child wrote, "We have been assured for months by our spirit friends that in due time the mundane world would be startled by this new phase of spirit power; but we were not prepared to receive it so soon, and are yet in doubt that the manifestation is entirely legitimate. We shall investigate further ere we give a decided opinion in the matter."

But the Boston Investigator, which had admired Holmes's battlefield narrative and advertised itself on its masthead as "devoted to the development and promotion of universal mental liberty," was not quite so diplomatic. In late 1862 and early 1863 the paper wrangled in print with the spiritualist newspapers in an effort to debunk Mumler's spirit photography. A writer named "Veritas" criticized the "dogmas of Spiritualism," observing that the appearance of spirit photography seemed to be just another in a long line of deceptive spiritualist performances:

The mediums multiply among us like the frogs of Egypt and set themselves up for teachers in morals, theology, science, and philosophy. They twitch, jerk, close their eyes, and saw the air with their arms, while they get off a large amount of cant and twattle about "the spheres" and other matters of which they know nothing whatever.... And in view of these things you and I, Mr. Editor, have often said, " What next?" Well, the next, the last, wonder is these "spirit photographs," which I pronounce a transparent, unmitigated humbug from beginning to end.

Readers appreciated the muckraking stance. A reader named "N. G.," who signed his letter "yours against all humbugs," wrote: "Mr. Editor: Your useful INVESTIGATOR is very much needed to counteract the superstitions of the day."

It is not known whether William Mumler and Oliver Wendell Holmes ever met in person, but their paths would cross the following summer in the pages of Atlantic Monthly. In a now canonical essay on photography called "Doings of the Sunbeam," Holmes would write of his experience of seeing photographs of the battlefield of Antietam and would excoriate the practice of spirit photography as an exploitation of the grief of the bereaved. While a number of scholars have engaged Holmes's writing on the Antietam images and fewer have noted the same essay's attack on spirit photography, no one has read these two commentaries together. Yet they are intimately related. The public conversation about spirit photography in the 1860s cannot be separated from the public experience of Civil War photography. Both summon the ghost of national trauma. I observed in the introduction that this book examines how Americans constituted themselves as agents of photographic interpretation. Although viewers could not yet view actual photographs in newspapers or magazines (that would not come for another two decades), spirit photographs and photographs of dead soldiers nevertheless shaped these citizens' experience of national life. Those who did not directly encounter photographs, or even engravings of them, frequently encountered public conversations about them in print. Such texts transformed readers into viewers through a translational process of virtual witnessing. Through newspaper stories, magazine articles, popular writings on photography, and even trial transcripts, citizens routinely encountered Civil War-era accounts of viewing.

This chapter examines close readings of photographs of the battlefield dead at Antietam, published accounts of photographs of unknown soldiers, and public commentary and trial transcripts related to the practice of spirit photography. Such photographs posed considerable reading problems for viewers who were unaccustomed to the idea of photographic representations of death and the afterlife. In a time of national crisis, grief, and trauma, viewers made sense of such images by drawing on their recognition of photography's capacity to produce presence. Presence, as described by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca in The New Rhetoric and elaborated by a variety of scholars, may best be understood as an effect of discourse that "acts directly on our sensibility." Presence brings before an audience an idea—an image—of what is absent in ways that enhance its value. Its "strongest agency," Louise Karon notes, "is that of the imagination." Presence thus has a decidedly affective quality; Karon describes it as an ambiguous but "felt quality of the audience's consciousness." John Murphy similarly observes that "presence possesses a kind of magical quality.... An auditor 'feels' the argument; it almost seems to be in the room." In this way presence may be understood not only as affective but also as visual, even sensual. A variety of visual and verbal strategies may be mobilized to produce presence; Perelman notes that amplification, aggregation, and playing with time are predominant ways to evoke presence for audiences. Techniques for generating presence are especially essential when the need arises to evoke "realities that are distant in time and space." Photography as it was practiced during and just after the Civil War offered profound resources of presence for its consumers.

Photography's capacity to collapse time and space is well understood, of course; as Roland Barthes writes, "Every photograph is a certificate of presence." What is pictured was once there, in the frame, to be photographed. And it persists in that presence, even with the passage of time. In the Civil War era, grieving families, war widows, and others with dead or missing loved ones embraced photography's capacity to offer presence in the midst of profound and often permanent absence. Small, treasured portraits could place lost or absent ones literally into the hands of family members to provide comfort, cue memory, and ease grief. In public contexts, photographs and engravings of the battlefield dead published in magazines and newspapers or displayed in the home or gallery space made war painfully present for viewers separated by time and space from loved ones in harm's way. Even more dramatically, the mysterious appearance of the apparent spirits of deceased family and friends in photographic portraits seemingly erased the most permanent of absences; here photography's capacity for presence seemed even to surmount death itself. During a period in which the collective grief of the "republic of suffering" vividly animated public life, those who read both war and spirit photographs recognized the medium's capacity for producing presence in the face of the most traumatic of absences.

Photographing the Civil War

Writing about the aftermath of the Civil War, Jackson Lears remarks, "Wars have a way of staying in the mind. Scenes of unimaginable carnage cannot be casually shrugged off; visceral fears and rages cannot be easily forgotten." Lears is not writing about photography specifically, but certainly the ability to visualize war and carnage made the Civil War present in the minds of Americans for decades. While the American Civil War was not the first war—or even the first American war—to be photographed, it was the first whose images widely circulated in public. By the time Holmes's account of the search for his son appeared in December 1862, other Americans had had their own chances to view the battlefield at Antietam. Photographs made immediately after the battle circulated as album cards and appeared as engravings in magazines like Harper's Weekly. Notably, the photographs of Antietam were the first images that featured the battlefield dead. William Frassanito observes, "Antietam was the first battlefield in American history to be covered by cameramen before the dead had been buried. It was the ... scenes showing human wreckage that thrust the Antietam series into the public limelight like no other series before or after." Photographers working for Mathew Brady, heralded by the New York Times in 1862 as the nation's "leading photographic artist," made the Antietam pictures. The Times wrote that since 1861, Brady's photographs of battlefields, camp life, and Union leaders had provided "us all a real service, in divers [sic] ways, by this work of his, undertaken so courageously, and carried forward so resolutely. It is no holiday business this taking the likeness of 'grim-visaged war.'" Despite this praise, Brady did not physically make the Civil War photographs credited to him in the press; today we might consider his role as more akin to a producer of a film than its director or cinematographer. Yet an image branded "photo by Brady" carried public weight in the 1850s and 1860s. His biographer Robert Wilson asserts, "Brady saw immediately the potential for photography to record firsthand the history of the Civil War and did more than any other person to make a visual historical record of the war happen."

Mathew Brady began his photography career at the age of twenty-two when in 1844 he opened a daguerreotype studio in New York City. He soon became a successful practitioner of photographic portraiture, opening subsequently larger galleries in New York and, by 1858, in Washington, D.C. In the 1840s and 1850s Brady created and marketed what he called his "gallery of illustrious Americans," portrait photographs of the leading military, political, and literary figures of the day. Brady's portraits were displayed at his studios, where visitors could wander among the images of "'Lecturers, Lions, Ladies, and Learned Men'" and in their faces see traits worth emulating. (I discuss Brady's gallery and the rhetoric of portraiture in more detail in chapter 2.) "More than any other American," argues Alan Trachtenberg, Brady "shaped the role of the photographer as a national historian, one who keeps records of the famous and the eminent, as well as the run-of-the-mill citizen." By the dawn of the Civil War, "Brady stood at the pinnacle of contemporary fame."

D. Mark Katz asserts that "Brady was adamant in his desire to photograph the war." He sought immediacy: to get photographs of the action before the public (and for sale) as quickly as possible. Yet the action itself was difficult to photograph; equipment was cumbersome and photographers had to obtain permission to access the battlefields. For this reason the vast majority of extant Civil War photographs are images far from the scene of battle: photographic portraits sent home by soldiers to loving families; quotidian images of camp life; landscapes of battlefields long cleared of the dead; and portraits of generals and other notables. Furthermore, most Civil War photographs record Union activities. As Keith F. Davis explains, "The Union blockade of Southern ports and the region's accelerating economic crisis severely curtailed photography in the fledgling Confederate nation and created many unfortunate gaps in the visual record of Confederate forces."

Despite the New York Times's declaration that Brady was the most important photographer of the war, there is little evidence that Brady himself made any battlefield photographs during the war. As was the case with his prewar photography, Brady considered an image his (and copyrighted it as such) if he had been present when the image was made or if he had provided the equipment to make the image. Immediately after the war began, Brady and his Washington gallery manager, Alexander Gardner, trained twenty assistants who commanded wagons carrying photographic equipment, each essentially a "movable darkroom." Gardner also obtained military credentials, which enabled him to work for the U.S. government as a photographer; his early work in the war found him photographing for Allan Pinkerton and the Secret Service. Throughout the early months of the war, Brady's photographers chronicled military operations throughout Virginia.


Excerpted from Making Photography Matter by Cara A. Finnegan. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Viewers Reading Photographs 1

1 The Presence of Unknown Soldiers and Imaginary Spirits: Viewing National Grief and Trauma in the Civil War 11

2 Recognizing Lincoln: Portrait Photography and the Physiognomy of National Character 51

3 Appropriating the Healthy Child: The Child That Toileth Not and Progressive Era Child Labor Photography 81

4 Managing the Magnitude of the Great Depression: Viewers Respond to FSA Photography 125

Conclusion: Photography's Viewers, Photography's Histories 169

Notes 177

Selected Bibliography 227

Index 231

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