The first thing you notice when you enter “Photography and the American Civil War” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the silence. There is a hush, an intake of breath, a softly murmured “oh my”—the same, sad quiet that you hear at Antietam, Gettysburg and Civil War sites all around the country. And no wonder. Displayed in galleries designed like tents on a battlefield, the photographs of slaughter, of slavery, of too-young soldiers dead or maimed take your breath away and make any commentary superfluous.
It took a new art form, however cumbersome and time-consuming, to re-tell the ancient story of man’s inhumanity to man. Through their work, thousands of photographers including Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, William Marsh and John Reekie, captured the sorrow and pity of combat and the collateral damage of injury, death and destruction. “Bloodbath in sepia,” a reviewer for NY Magazine called it.
The Civil War was one of those turning points that, in the immortal words of British historian AJP Taylor, “did not turn.” We are still fighting those battles today, although in different arenas.
Photography may have changed the way we see and experience war, but it cannot—for all its terrible beauty—wipe away the stain.