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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Armstrong, Jennifer Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Civil War
Atheneum, 2005 [160p] illus. with photographs
ISBN 0-689-85785-3 $18.95
Reviewed from galleys
Gr. 6-10

We all know exactly what the Civil War looked like, don't we? Thanks to the photographs of Mathew Brady and his one-time partner Alexander Gardner, we know the stoic, staring faces of the soldiers, the high collar and sunken cheeks of Lincoln before his election, the dignity of white-haired Lee with hat in hand after the war, the wounded on stretchers, the "contraband" in flight, the corpses in trenches. But just how candid are these pictures? What images are missing, and why? And if we still feel an emotional jolt across nearly a century and a half, what did these photos mean to the torn country itself? In this thought-provoking work, Armstrong explores the body of photographs that are generally--and often too loosely--attributed to Brady and discusses how they influenced the war and fixed it in popular imagination.

Opening sections introduce Brady, the artist and businessman, and clarify the technical limitations of mid-nineteenth-century photography that directly bear upon the documentation of the war. Already a renowned portrait photographer, Brady worked within a studio tradition that not only allowed but demanded careful staging of the subject, manipulation of light, and addition of appropriate props--a tradition that he would carry onto the battlefield. He would also maintain the distinction between artist and technician, setting up the poses himself and relegating the actual camera work to an operator. Never quite the businessman his partner Alexander Gardner would be, Brady nonetheless recognized that the coming hostilities would promote a steady trade in cartes de visite as soldiers clamored for parting mementos and in battle-scene photos for newspaper lithographs. The crankiness of glass-plate photography, with its requirements of cumbersome equipment, still subjects, ample light, long exposures, and a ready source of fresh water, would, despite Brady's artistry and commercial acumen, impose serious constraints on which images he and his operators could actually collect in the field.

With this background established, Armstrong turns to a chronological tour of the battlegrounds and, with the aid of a dense gallery of meticulously captioned Brady (and later Gardner) Studio photos, she deftly traces the interplay between the war and its documentation. The Union Army welcomed whatever images they could obtain for reconnaissance purposes, soldiers with access to illustrated papers gained some sense of military developments on other fronts, and civilians were shocked by the reality of the carnage that letters from the combatants could only suggest: "Pictures of this sort--the blood still fresh and the bodies still warm (or so it seemed to the shuddering visitors)--had never been shown to the public." At least as intriguing as the extant photos are those images conspicuous by their absence. There is no photo from the first battle of Bull Run, Armstrong points out, because Brady's wagon was upended by retreating Union soldiers. There is no picture of Lincoln delivering his address at Gettysburg, because his brief speech was over before photographers could set up their cameras. There are no action scenes, no night scenes, no winter scenes, no indoor scenes, and often no scenes from areas with murky water. There are, however, plenty of photos of the dead, the most cooperative of subjects, who docilely pose under the wide blue sky and silently accept whichever label--"Reb" or "Yank"--the photographer assigns.

Armstrong confines her attention to the Civil War, but she leaves readers well prepared to examine critically the still and video images from contemporary conflicts by pursuing those questions already applied to Brady's work: How candid are these pictures? What images are missing, and why? As her imaginative sidebar scenarios of "The Photograph Not Taken" suggest, the pictorial view of war is always incomplete and subtly fashioned by the photographer's skill, intent, and luck. This insight should serve young adults well as they aspire to be better historians, better photographers, and better citizens.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

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Cover illustration from Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Civil War ©2005. Used by permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2005.