No Tongue Can Tell: Civil War Photography at the Met

By Leslie JamisonOctober 3, 2013

No Tongue Can Tell: Civil War Photography at the Met

Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff L. Rosenheim

ON OCTOBER 20, 1862, The New York Times reviewed the first public display of Civil War photography, an exhibit documenting the carnage at Antietam. “Mr. [Matthew] Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” the Times reported. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

This praise invokes a certain fantasy of verisimilitude — declaring its faith in photography’s capacity to offer unmediated documentation and immediate access — but its faith is anxious, hastily qualifying its own declarations: If he has not brought bodies …he has done something very like it. In this stuttering — “very like it” — we can hear the persistent gap between actuality and representation: the loss can come closer, but never close enough to touch. As Emerson once wrote about the death of his son: “I cannot get it nearer to me.”

“No tongue can tell,” a Union Captain named John Taggart wrote his brother after Antietam, “no mind conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.” This denial isn’t the refusal of expression so much as its subtlest realization: insisting upon the impossibility of describing war becomes the best way of describing it. The bodies can never arrive at the dooryards, he suggests — at least not by the old means of expressive transport: text, language, tongue.

Both of these quotes — bring home to us, no tongue can tell — are prominently displayed on placards in the rooms of “Photography and the American Civil War,” a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And the sentiments work like conceptual bookends, in memory, circumscribing the dilemma facing anyone facing these photographs: How can horror be known? Do photos offer what other forms of representation can’t? Do they offer what the mind can’t even fully hold?

Another quote from Whitman insists on the impossibility of writing about war — “War is not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written — its practicality, minutia of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested.” But the curatorial notes use his words to open up the margin of what photography can do: “Surgeon-photographer Bontecou offers a glimpse of what the bard thought was not possible.” It’s an evocation of generic rivalry: the idea is that photographs offer “actuality” while other art inevitably offers romanticized distortion.

Photography’s promise of unvarnished representation finds confirmation in its very syntax: photos are “taken,” not “made;” plucked whole from the world rather than constructed from its simulacra. A cartoon on display here plays on this idea of “taking,” wryly offering photography as an act of repossession: Jefferson Davis stands behind a tripod, facing the grand dome of the Capitol, and his caption reads: “Jeff Davis ‘taking’ Washington.” In the midst of a conflict about possession — the self-possession of states, the possession of slaves, the possession of nation — photography offered its own kind of claiming: the repossession and repositioning of history. History, we are reminded, never just happens; it’s never simply shown — it’s always made.


“Photography and the American Civil War” examines a singular intersection of aesthetic experimentation and national trauma: during the Civil War, a new art was being deployed to document an unprecedented tragedy. The Civil War changed the history of photography by giving it an unimaginable task, and photography changed the Civil War by giving it a previously inconceivable level of representation — the fruits of which are stunning, often overwhelming. The rooms of this exhibit hold the outlined ribs of soldiers, the brick skeletons of ravaged Southern factories, the lush topography of deep Virginia valleys and “the scourged back” of a runaway slave, another kind of landscape, those lines and furrows where whips have been.

Photographs of the bloated bellies of bodies on battlefields are displayed next to a stereoscopic display of boys eating dinner at camp, holding their forks high around a campfire. We feel how easily the boys become the corpses; how easily their bodies slide from one photograph to the next. Soldiers proudly holding weapons for studio portraits become the boys in medical shots two rooms away: Private Robert Fryer is a teenager holding his hand over his chest, three fingers missing so it looks — eerily — like the way a boy might turn his hand into a gun, two longest fingers turned to barrel, if he were playing at war.

The impulse to represent the enormous scale of the war — the individual faces of its soldiers, the figures of its heroes, the savaged spectacle of its battlefields — is manifest in the wide variety of photographic forms: cartes de visite, stereoscopes, albumen silver prints, lockets and amulets, a game board decorated with the faces of Union Generals, an ivory necklace bearing the faces of high-ranking Confederates.

Photographs got cheaper during the Civil War. Priced between 10 cents and two dollars, they effectively transitioned from luxury to commonplace. They offered reassurance and testimony. Studio portraits were meant to keep departing soldiers immortal in several senses: as talismans, they could prevent them from dying; as relics, they could preserve their memory once they were dead. Other images were plucked from the middle of the fray: photographers set up shop on battlefields still live with smoke or studded with rotting bodies.

The forward march of technology — the desire to find and utilize new techniques and new effects, to make everything realer than real, as real as possible — means some of these photos verge into various shades of the surreal. Soldiers wear the garish blush of hand-tinted color on their cheeks; stereoscopes create the crude 3-D effect of corpses emerging from rubble. Shading and dimensionality feel less like realism and more like performers trying too hard, the effortful urgency of each performance like a plea: here, please, look at this dead man — another body almost delivered to the dooryard, limbs thrust up close to a pair of eyes thrust up close to the stereoscopic viewer.


In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag articulates the shame of finding horror beautiful, and maps a double-standard across genres:

That a gory battlescape could be beautiful — in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful — is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.

There is certainly beauty in the ruins of these images — ruined industry and ruined woods and ruined bodies, crumbling factories against Georgia skies, fog lifting off corpse-riddled fields — and perhaps this beauty works as a kind of Trojan Horse: the reaction arrives as awe and sticks around as horror. Beauty gets under our skin; it lodges.

But the beauty still troubles us: not just because it seems “heartless” but because it calls attention to the photograph as something constructed rather than simply found, something made rather than taken. Beauty reminds us that the photo was once framed by someone who found its beauty worth capturing. The ghost of the photographer looms.

This haunting is part of what accounts for the appeal of what Sontag calls “anti-art” photography:

For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance.

The desire for witnessing without artistry begins to explain the sense of betrayal that comes from learning certain photos were staged: props placed, bodies moved, limbs arranged. Beside Alexander Gardner’s famous image “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg,” the curatorial notes summarize a long comet trail of controversy: the photograph, whose sense of “home” is offered in utmost irony, shows the corpse of a soldier tucked between boulders. It has been long believed that Gardner moved the corpse away from the battlefield and into the more “scenic” framing of this rocky ravine.

As Sontag notes, the “odd” thing isn’t that this photograph may have been staged, “it is that we are surprised to learn [it has] been staged, and […] disappointed.” Our desire for the absolutely unaltered photograph testifies to a greater delusion — that the unmoved body would offer an unmediated kind of vision. But conspicuous forms of distortion only force us to confront that photos are inevitably mediated, inevitably constructed, inevitably distancing. Once the bodies arrive at the door, they aren’t bodies anymore: they’ve been flattened, framed, and fitted. They’ve been run through chemical solutions.

The taint of artistry is all over these photographs, but this taint is also the residue of something deeply authentic — the longing to glorify, to immortalize, to preserve. In fact, there’s a way to look at the “taints” of mediation and artistry not as traces of deception — the body wasn’t really there, the soldier didn’t really use that gun — but as records of attempt. All this staging and intervention signifies an intense longing — to express courage and horror in full — and the residue of this longing constitutes another kind of authenticity: not the authenticity of what was, but the authentic desire to make this “was” immortal.

Elsewhere, the “taint of artistry” takes interesting forms. The surgeon-photographer Reed Brockway Bontecou uses a red pencil to sketch paths of bullets and lines of blood onto photos of his patients’ bullet wounds. In these trails of red, we see craft asserting itself all over the understated eloquence of a “taken” thing — a kind of insistent declaration: here is what happened, here is what was damaged. In another studio photo, we see a photographer’s posing stand left in the frame by mistake, and it becomes part of the story, too. We see triple-armed boy soldiers — holding weapons in both hands, another in the belt — and find the force of their struggle to seem brave; we see a body rearranged — we read the contested story of its rearrangement — and find proof of its photographer’s effort to solicit feeling.

Perhaps the part of us that feels betrayed by prop guns and relocated bodies is continuous with — not betrayed by — the same set of desires that moved those bodies in the first place. Both rearrangement and its indignant response grow from a shared anxiety about the impossibility of access: that there is no way to arrange the body that will fully communicate the whole truth of its dying.

Perhaps photography ultimately refutes the possibility of unmediated access more deftly than other media ever can — by bringing us just close enough to actuality, something like it, that we have to confront that we’ll never confront the it itself. We look at corpses in the field and know we’ll never live beside the dead, and know the dead will never live again — at least, not like they did.


Once you peel away the fantasy of photography as unconstructed truth, you open up the fascinating story of its construction, all the mechanisms behind its making. “The camera is the eye of history,” Matthew Brady once said, but behind the eye of the camera was always the eye of a man (often Brady himself), and behind the man there was always a team — and some funding, a commission, an imperative, a market fueled by desperate hope and fear in equal measure.

Civil War photography was spurred and nourished by the marketplace — what Sontag calls “the force of entrepreneurial and freelance motives” — and structured by a deepening culture of artistic property. The cost of access (the peril of taking photos) got translated into the cost of copyright itself — a form of access restriction.

These “freelance motives” didn’t just structure the funding of field photographers under the auspices of competing galleries, or support the growing numbers of profit-driven studios; they also offered opportunities for innovative social manipulation of the marketplace. Emancipated slave Sojourner Truth sold her own portrait to raise money for other freed slaves, declaring her purpose in her caption: “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.” For Truth, photography inverts the terms of ownership she’d always suffered under. She “used to be sold for other people’s benefit,” she says; now she sold herself, for her own.

The Met exhibit’s curatorial commentary celebrates the ways in which photography was more generally serving the social good, working as a kind of social Peter Pan:

The seamless photographic national portrait being created by individuals across America for a host of different reasons and purposes would also help delineate the lives of the country’s most disenfranchised and invisible from the cultural record.

These words carry the hint of another celebratory mythology, not just a fantasy of immediacy but a fantasy of democratic attention: photography as an art form in which everyone becomes visible. One can’t help speculating, though, that photographic visibility has its limits and asymmetries: the black men in these photos are rarely named; the North had the resources to produce far more photos than the South.

“All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions,” Sontag wrote, and if that’s true, perhaps their captions — in turn — wait to be explained or falsified by their curators.

The curatorial sensibility of this exhibit is an illuminating one, explaining much more than it falsifies — consistently provocative and engaging where other curatorial approaches might have lapsed into bland context or boilerplate aesthetic rumination. The head curator — and author of the extraordinary catalogue — is Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Met’s Department of Photography, and his voice is rigorous and eloquent.

At times, however, the exhibit seems too willing to corral these images into overly coherent historical narratives:

In the creation of this vast treasury of photographs — a national visual library of sorts — the camera performed a key role the opposing armies and their leaders could not: it defined and perhaps even helped unify the nation through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making.

We are invited to see these photos as the realization of a dream effectively broken by the war itself: the possibility of a united country. What’s fascinating about this curatorial argument is not just its optimistic projection of unity but its confession of desire — a desire to make sense of the devastation, to make it generative — that feels continuous with the central desire manifest in the images themselves. Framing these images inside a project of nation-building is a way to make the carnage useful — a way to maintain some semblance of agency in the wake of loss. The curatorial voice is still longing for what these soldiers and photographers and widows longed for all those years before — some possibility of salvage amidst the wreckage.


This expansive sense of longing is also on display just down the hall, in another temporary exhibit called “The Civil War and American Art.” These rooms hold the kind of paintings you might expect: war granted its metaphoric landscapes (stormy clouds signify upcoming conflict) and nationalistic pageantry (a starry night sky full of flames becomes a tattered flag) — but the most interesting room in the exhibit is the last one, which contains no images of war at all: no soldiers, no battles, no bloodshed, not even any artillery, any camps, any pageantry, any uniforms.

Instead, this final room holds a collection of landscape paintings: emerald caves under the massive haunches of an iceberg, a sparkling swath of aurora borealis, the rocky cliffs and soaring sky of a pristine Yosemite. “Rainy Season in the Tropics” shows a double rainbow, that promise of redemption and resolution — while a distant white city is tiny, pale, barely visible. The closer you get, the more this city looks like smudges of paint. “War feels to me an oblique place,” Emily Dickinson once remarked (she is quoted on a placard here), and we find that “oblique place” in this final room, summoned by these huge, Edenic canvasses — their slanted vision simultaneously occluding the war and finding its symbolic avatars everywhere. These landscapes are portraits of war insofar as they are portraits of the deep yearning that rose from its wounds for a unified, majestic nation.

Which is to say: the art of war is never just a record of what was, but also a record of longing for everything that wasn’t — just as the “taint of artistry” in photographs is nothing but a heat map of yearning. Art doesn’t document just the body in a ditch but also the ways someone needed to make sense of that body by moving it there, the ways in which tragedy was given props and frames; art doesn’t just offer vistas full of corpses but vistas full of everything else.

If photography in the 1860s was learning to document the damage, then these paintings confess the desire that damage left in its wake, a desperate craving for vast skies full of color and wonder and rainbows, full of promise fantastic and symbolic, graced with distant gleaming cities — pale and tiny — barely big enough to see.


In a photograph called “Woman Holding Cased Portraits of Civil War Soldiers,” a young woman does just that. Her face is stoic, unflinching. Her cheeks are rouged so brightly they no longer belong to her expression. One soldier in her double-sided frame looks overexposed, the other shadowed. They are her brothers, or her cousins; perhaps one is a lover. She grips the photos tightly. She wants something from it, just like I want something from her — I study her face to find out what, what do I want? Some feeling from her image, long-faded, not-yet-gone.

Everyone who wanders such exhibition halls wants something — though it’s rarely labeled, what we want from images of the dead. We want to remember things that never happened to us. We want to remember grief we never felt. Guards keep saying “No photographs,” in these hallways full of photographs, because people keep trying, slyly lifting their cell phones, Instagramming all these captured corpses. The same hungers that made people take these photographs in the first place now make us want to photograph them all over again: the desire to preserve and to possess, to carry forth, to hold close.

A friend of mine — a photographer, incidentally — pointed out the problem intrinsic to an exhibit like this one: how can you feel saddened by images that are supposed to make you feel sad? Doesn’t this deaden their impact — this expectation of pathos, the clarity of what they are soliciting? How can we find ourselves overwhelmed by a feeling we know we are supposed to have?

His question made me think about why I wanted to think so hard about these photos. I spent hours feeling nothing but fascination; maybe I was trying to think myself into grief. But you can’t think the bodies through the dooryard gates. They can only arrive when you’re surprised by their arrival.

For me, it’s not a battlefield panorama that delivers them. It’s not a splay of corpses bloated on the grass, pockets turned out by robbers. It’s not even a shot of soldiers before battle, the sharp sting of their aliveness when I know they won’t be alive forever — it’s not their forks stuck into crocks of beans, their crooked smiles, the forced grin of a black cook boy.

It’s a studio shot. The bodies arrive as three men posed in suits — two standing, one seated, all stiff. Two have sleeves folded and pinned at the elbows. Their faces are regal and stoic, gazing into unknown middle distances; while the third has two black hollows where his eyes should be. His face is also regal, stoic. He is staring at nothing; he’ll never stare at anything.

I can analyze what happens in this moment when I see the photograph and feel saddened by it — when all the fascination that has been carrying me across these bodies parts suddenly, like some great sea, to make way for feeling. I can say it’s something about the solemnity of the staging, how it evokes some hunger for order. I can say it has to do with these expressionless faces, how their refusal to show sadness invites me to fill the gap, make up the difference, obey the hydraulics of compensatory sympathy. I can say it has to do with the blind man’s mouth, in particular, which is set in some line whose affect I can’t parse — determined? angry? hopeful? — because he has no eyes to read, and this opacity only brings me back to the blunt fact of what he’s lost. I can offer all these hypotheses about the craft and mechanics of my empathy, but it would be simpler — perhaps more honest — just to say: something happens. When I look at this photo, something happens. A body arrives at the door. It has no eyes. It belongs to William R. Mudge, Union Soldier. Before the war, in Massachusetts, he worked as a photographer.


Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2014.

LARB Contributor

Leslie Jamison's first novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the 2010 Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize. Her second book, a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams, will be published by Graywolf in early 2014.  

Follow her on twitter @lsjamison 



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