Near the end of his prose and poetry collection Memoranda During the War, Walt Whitman contemplated the scope of carnage across the national landscape — “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead.”
Those words, notes Richard S. Lowry, echo the battlefield photos that Whitman’s friend Alexander Gardner and his assistants made in the aftermath of such monumental Civil War clashes as Antietam and Gettysburg.
Photography in mid-19th century was still a new technology, too bulky and slow to record actual firefights. Consequently, the Gardner photos were of unburied bodies littering fields and crumpled amid trees and rocks.
As static as they appear to modern eyes, these images, displayed in Matthew Brady’s New York studio and later in Gardner’s own gallery, brought the war home to Americans in a new and visceral way. Gardner’s photographs, writes Lowry, “spoke less about flanking maneuvers and attacks and campaigns and the fate of the Union than about death — not a ‘good death,’ redeemed by noble causes and last words to the family by a sudden, anonymous, and profoundly violent end of life.” (46)
In these black and white “views,” as they were called, it was difficult, if not impossible to determine if a body was that of a Northern or Southern soldier. They were simply Americans. “Our dead,” as Whitman wrote.
Lowry’s captivating new book, The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner & the Images That Made a Presidency, is about “our dead,” as Gardner pictured them and as Lincoln memorialized them. And one victim in particular — Lincoln himself.
Don’t pay attention to the subtitle. This is a book about loss and memory, about the nation’s ideals and the nation’s future. It’s also about looking death in the face.
Of the 130 or so photographs that we have of Lincoln, Gardner took at least 38. He isn’t responsible for some of the famous ones, such as those replicated on the penny and the $5 bill. But his are among the most evocative, including the “Gettysburg Lincoln” and the “cracked-plate” portrait from the President’s final photo session two months before his assassination.
That’s what The Photographer and the President is — evocative. It’s an impressionistic work. Lowry isn’t out to “prove” a theory. Instead, he’s setting the experiences of Gardner and Lincoln next to each other in the text and noticing common themes and vision. And not just those two, but also Whitman and George McClellan and even Lincoln’s son Tad.
Lowry parallels Lincoln’s vision in the Gettysburg Address with a photo that Gardner’s team took at Gettysburg titled “Harvest of Death.” The image, he notes, is all about violation:
The open pockets, the shoeless feet of the left-center body, the barely discernable objects scattered across the landscape — bits of cloth, leather, paper; a cup and what looks like a paper card (a carte de visite of a loved one?) in the foreground — all suggest the postmortem scavenging of what was once personal to each of the men. The most unsettling sign of violence, though, can be found in the front figure’s mouth. Open like a wound, it distends in a bellow of permanent protest to its fate. Lowry writes that such photos challenged the viewers “to the inexorable responsibility the living have to those who died.” That, of course, was echoed by Lincoln at Gettysburg: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that these dead shall not have died in vain…”
One of the great strengths of The Photographer and the President is Lowry’s close reading of Gardner’s images of war and of Lincoln. Thoughtful, incisive and insightful, they bring the reader into the moment while also providing importan context.
For instance, Lowry suggests that, when the “Gettysburg Lincoln” was made in November, 1863, the President probably wasn’t thinking about the speech he had to give later that month but about his place in history based on the Emancipation Proclamation from earlier that year.
These close readings, though, also reveal the weaknesses of the book as an object. At six-by-nine-inches, the format is simply too small to adequately display the images that Lowry discusses. At least, the 19 images in a photo insert on shiny paper are sharp and clear. Not so with the other 200 or so illustrations printed within the text on regular paper and, consequently, looking dark and muddy.
Still, even with these flaws, The President and the Photographer is an endlessly absorbing and innovative examination of the two men and their dovetailing visions.
One iconic photograph that Gardner took at Antietam shows Lincoln looming over an array of much shorter Union officers, including the diminutive Gen. George McClellan. The President had been struggling for months with the military leader about the direction of the war, and Lowry writes:
Gardner’s image of Lincoln standing tall with his general and his staff documents a moment when the president, McClellan and their photographer were assessing the fearful costs and myriad opportunities inherent in a scale of warfare that, only a few months before, had been unimaginable. Each man would respond in his own way to the responsibilities of such a recognition.
And, through Lincoln’s words and Gardner’s photos, Americans of their generation and ever since have been confronted by the same responsibilities.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally was published on 4.12.2015 in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune.