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A Short History of Photography During the American Civil War

It has been said that, thanks to photographers during the American Civil War, we know more about this War than we do about all the wars leading up to World War II. The amount and numbers of Civil War photographs available today contrast sharply with the scarcity of photographs available from subsequent major conflicts such as the Russian wars in Central Asia, the Franco-Prussian War, the Boer War and, in some cases, even World War I.

The results and efforts of pioneering Civil War photographers can be seen in almost all history texts and media regarding the conflict.

Like any newfound pioneering work, the process of taking photographs during the Civil War proved to be complex and time-consuming. Photography was still in its infancy. Many photographers were older than the technology.

niepce earliest photographThe roots of photography were started on a sunny day in 1827 (some say 1825) by a Frenchman named Joseph Niepce who developed the first fixed image. Niepce used material that hardened on a glass plate when exposed to light in eight-hour increments. However, it was Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre who simplified the process and reduced the exposure time to less than thirty minutes that made it adaptable for battlefield conditions in the future (it shall be noted that Daguerre’s process was used during the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s—this is the first War ever to be photographed). This process, known as the Daguerreotype method, became popular in New York City, and by then, several studios had been setup. The methods continued to be fine-tuned, and by the start of the Civil War, a cheaper and more practical system of photographing was developed. A new processing system developed by Henry Fox Talbot used the modern-day positive-negative process, thus making it possible to have several copies of the same picture.

sam cooley confederate photographreDuring the Civil War, it did not get much easier for photographers to take photographs. Two men were needed to take one photograph. The photographer and his assistant would arrive at a location where the assistant would mix the photographic chemicals and pour them on a clean glass plate. After the chemicals were given time to evaporate, the glass plate would be sensitized by being immersed – in darkness – in a bath solution. Finally, once placed in the camera, which had already been focused and positioned by the photographer, the photographer would quickly “expose” the plate towards the subject that he is photographing and then quickly rush to the darkroom wagon for developing. Each fragile glass plate had to be treated with great care after development – a difficult task on a highly mobile and often primitive battlefield many miles away from the closest photography studio.

Source: Photography in the American Civil War