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Alexander Gardner, Civil War Photographer


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Alexander Gardner's Photographs of Antietam Became a Sensation in New York City
Alexander Gardner's Photograph of the Dunker Church

Alexander Gardner's Photograph from Antietam of the Dunker Church, With a Dead Confederate Gun Crew in the Foreground

Library of Congress

After Gardner returned to Brady’s studio in Washington, prints were made of his negatives and were taken to New York City. As the photographs were something entirely new, images of dead Americans on a battlefield, Mathew Brady decided to display them immediately in his New York City gallery, which was located at Broadway and Tenth Street.

The technology of the time didn’t allow photographs to be reproduced widely in newspapers or magazines (though woodcut prints based on photographs appeared in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly). So it wasn’t uncommon for people to come to Brady’s gallery to view new photographs.

On October 6, 1862, a notice in the New York Times announced that photographs of Antietam were being displayed at Brady’s gallery. The brief article mentioned that the photographs show “blackened faces, distorted features, expressions most agonizing…” It also mentioned that the photographs could also be purchased at the gallery.

New Yorkers flocked to see the Antietam photographs, and were fascinated and horrified.

On October 20, 1862, the New York Times published a lengthy review of the exhibition at Brady’s New York gallery. One particular paragraph describes the reaction to Gardner's photographs:

"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, 'The Dead of Antietam.'

"Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them.

"You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes.

"It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But so it is."

As Mathew Brady's name was associated with any photographs taken by his employees, it became fixed in the public mind that Brady had taken the photographs at Antietam. That mistake persisted for a century, though Brady himself had never been to Antietam.

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