The Civil War Photographers Before Kirsten Dunst – The New Yorker

Alex Garland’s new film, “Civil War,” follows two war photographers on a road trip from New York to Washington, D.C., via the blue highways of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The more experienced photographer, played by Kirsten Dunst, uses a Sony digital camera, while her apprentice, played by Cailee Spaeny, shoots a Nikon and makes old-school film negatives of a fictional civil war. A real-life road trip to Washington, D.C., via I-95, brings you past the National Archives campus in College Park, Maryland, where the archivists in the Still Picture Branch manage the actual photos of the actual Civil War and the negatives from which they were printed. Like Spaeny’s character, actual Civil War photographers developed images in the field, theirs made on glass plates coated with collodion, a syrupy chemical compound that was also used by Civil War-era surgeons as a liquid bandage.

After a century and a half, the Civil War-era glass-plate negatives, sensitive to light and air, have been carefully stored. One of the very few people who have come in contact with them during the past two decades is Billy Wade, the Still Picture Branch’s supervisory archivist. There are roughly nine thousand plates from the war and subsequent Western surveys, which ended in the eighteen-seventies. The cabinets that house the plates are sky blue. Each shelf holds about a hundred, all in a NASA-level climate-­controlled room. Last week, Wade told a visitor, “The other day, I was in there, and I thought, I wonder if anybody will ever ask what they look like, so I took a picture with my phone.” In the image he made, the cabinets have a nineteen-sixties computer-lab vibe: the rows of plates in flapped enclosures could be powerful servers that fuel the national memory bank.

“I’ve got some things pulled,” Wade said. He went away and returned pushing a cart holding prints made by Alexander Gardner, a Scottish photographer who started the war working for the better-­known Mathew Brady, then went out on his own. All the photographs were made for what is often called the first photo book, “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.” At the center of Gardner’s book is one of the archive’s most frequently requested photos of the time, made by his partner Timothy O’Sullivan, at Gettysburg, after the battle. Gardner titled it “A Harvest of Death,” and it is fascinating for the way the details of the dead are in sharp focus, while the living are like ghosts. After the war, O’Sullivan went West with scientists and soldiers and made what is probably the archive’s most requested survey photograph—a sand dune, about three miles long, in Nevada. That picture features the army ambulance that O’Sullivan converted into a travelling darkroom. The photo of the sand dune, creamy and smooth, is an albumen print, made with an antique process that uses egg whites. (Photographic journals at the time featured cheesecake recipes.)

Among the fourteen million unique analog photos at the Still Picture Branch are images from every war that has been photographed. It is common for veterans to visit; the parking lot is often dotted with cars bearing Vietnam War insignia. “We’ve had war photographers come in here and say they remember making these pictures,” Wade said.

Recently, Dennis Fisher, a Marine combat photographer now in his seventies, stopped in to see negatives that he had developed in Vietnam, in 1967 and 1968. He was assisted by Cecilia Figliuolo, an archivist with an interest in combat photography, who spoke to him about the photos he had made twenty-eight years before she was born. “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘This is the first time I’ve held these negatives since I was 20 or 21,’ ” she wrote in “The Unwritten Record,” one of the archive’s blogs. Sitting with the veteran, Figliuolo learned details that the archivists could only have guessed at. As Fisher studied a picture of two men firing mortars in May, 1968—part of a U.S. operation to clear land south of Da Nang—he told Figliuolo that he had brought a tape recorder along on the mission, to record the sonic chaos. “Did you take your recorder out with you every time?” she asked.

“No, I took it out once, and it was such a pain in the ass to lug around I never took it out again,” he said.

When Fisher returned home from the archive, he phoned Figliuolo, and played her the cassette tape, but what she remembered long after his visit was that, when he had stared at the battle scenes in the archive, it was as if that audiotape were playing in his head. “In that moment, I could tell that he could hear it,” she said. “He remembered everything.” ♦

A Harvard undergrad took her roommate’s life, then her own. She left behind her diary.

The reason an Addams Family painting wound up hidden in a university library.

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