The American Civil War was the first war to be widely photographed. And many of the iconic images of the conflict are the work of one photographer. While Matthew Brady is the name generally associated with Civil War images, it was Alexander Gardner, who worked for Brady’s company, who actually took many of the best-known photos of the war.
Gardner was born in Scotland on October 17, 1821. Apprenticed to a jeweler in his youth, he worked at that trade before changing careers and taking a job for a finance company. At some point in the mid-1850s he became very interested in photography and learned to use the new “wet plate collodion” process.
In 1856 Gardner, along with his wife and children, came to the United States. Gardner made contact with Matthew Brady, whose photographs he had seen at an exhibition in London years earlier.
Gardner was hired by Brady, and in 1856 he began running a photographic studio Brady had opened in Washington, D.C. With Gardner’s experience as both businessman and photographer, the studio in Washington prospered.
Brady and Gardner worked together until about the end of 1862. At the time, it was standard practice for the owner of a photographic studio to claim credit for all the images shot by photographers in his employ. It is believed that Gardner became unhappy about that, and left Brady so photographs he took would no longer be credited to Brady.
In the spring of 1863 Gardner opened his own studio in Washington, D.C.
Throughout the years of the Civil War, Alexander Gardner would make history with his camera, shooting dramatic scenes on battlefields as well as evocative portraits of President Abraham Lincoln.