Fall 2007

DeGolyer curator rediscovers an unsung (and uncredited) pioneer

Mathew Brady is the name on some of the Civil War’s most iconic images, including views of Ulysses S. Grant in the field and General Robert E. Lee in Richmond just days after the close of the war. Yet Brady’s eyesight was poor, and the war’s most famous photographer may not have taken a single picture during that time, says Anne E. Peterson, curator of photographs in SMU’s DeGolyer Library.

Engineer Camp at the Zuni Pass in Sierra Madre, New Mexico. See a slide show of this and other photos by Alexander Gardner.

“Brady was kind of the Steven Spielberg of his day,” she adds. “He had name recognition, he oversaw everything, but he really was more of an idea man than a hands-on photographer at that point.” Rather, some of the war’s most enduring images can be traced to Alexander Gardner, one of Brady’s staff photographers and, starting in 1858, manager of Brady’s Washington, D.C., studio.

“Gardner’s work is reproduced endlessly, but he’s rarely credited,” says Peterson. She has made the photographer her primary research focus and talked about her discoveries with U.S. News & World Report for the magazine’s “Secrets of the Civil War” cover story (July 2, 2007). Gardner will get the credit he is due as Peterson pursues her research for her upcoming book on his groundbreaking Civil War photography, as well as in a DeGolyer exhibition as part of the Library’s 2011 observation of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.

Gardner was the first to photograph the brutally gruesome wreckage of war dead on the battlefield of Antietam; one of his stereographs is dated September 17, 1862, the day of the battle, Peterson says. Shortly after Antietam, Gardner left Brady’s employ and continued war photography from his own studio. Historians have speculated that his departure was due to a fight over credit, but Peterson’s research points to a more fundamental disagreement. An examination of contemporary financial records indicates that Gardner almost certainly left Brady’s employ because of money.

“Mathew Brady was a good salesman but a terrible businessman,” Peterson says. “He made a great deal of money catering to a wealthy and elite clientele, but he spent that money as quickly as it came in. By the time of the Civil War, he wasn’t even paying his creditors, so he probably wasn’t paying his photographers, either.”

After he went into business for himself, Gardner frequently gave credit to his photographers, yet he also got credit for published images, for example, by employee Timothy O’ Sullivan, she adds.

“At that time, credit wasn’t given to individual photographers, but to the studios where they worked,” she says. “It was like getting your picture taken at Gittings Portraits today. You know for a fact that Paul Linwood Gittings didn’t take your photo, but his studio name is on the print regardless.”

President Abraham Lincoln

Meanwhile, Gardner had photographed President Abraham Lincoln 37 times, twice as often as any other photographer. “Gardner was a brilliant businessman and had many Washington contacts. He didn’t need Brady or his debt,” Peterson says.

Perhaps as important as Gardner’s Civil War work was his less well known photography of the American West. In 1867, Gardner went West with a railroad surveying group leaving St. Louis for San Francisco and made photographs all along the way, including many places that had never been photographed before. The result was the first comprehensive Western American landscape survey in history, Peterson says.

That survey has never been published in its entirety —which has led to Peterson’s next project. DeGolyer Library owns one of four known sets of Gardner’s Western survey portfolio, and Peterson will explore and expound upon it in a book and in a DeGolyer exhibition, she says.

“This material is not available at Yale, nor at the Getty Museum, nor even at the Library of Congress,” she says. “It’s an enormously important resource, and we have the opportunity to bring it to the greater public.”

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