In contrast to Timothy O'Sullivan's self-portrait, is this portrait of Mathew Brady. Brady started in New York as a jewel case manufacturer in 1843 but by the time the Civil War erupted he was the most-talked about photographer in the country. With glamorous and popular portrait studios in New York and Washington D.C., he was as much a businessman as a photographer, ironically emphasized by his failing eye sight. While Brady was not the first to come up with the idea of documenting the war photographically, he was the one with the fervor and influence to make the idea a reality. After returning from photographing the First Battle of Bull Run, "Brady insisted that his assistants take his picture," as he had just taken his pictures at Bull Run, "for history."1 But what did this phrase really mean, and how was a documentation of the war for history to be made? By taking into account these conceptual questions and practical considerations involved in Civil War field photography, we are better able to appreciate the thought and effort O'Sullivan put into his photographs, the choices and decisions he made professionally and photographically, and thus the technique, style, and significance of his work.
It is well known that the photographic process used at the time, called the wet-plate process, limited and determined the way photographs could be made. Photographers used glass plate negatives which were coated with chemicals in order to make them sensitive to light. For a successful exposure however, the chemicals had to be wet at the time of exposure. This made it necessary for photographers in the field to travel with a darkroom, usually a wagon (O'Sullivan adapted a war ambulance). Here, he would chemically treat his glass plate negative, rush it out to his camera, expose it to the light, rush it back to his wagon and develop it before it dried. William Henry Jackson once wrote "'When hard pressed for time I had to make a negative in fifteen minutes from the time the first rope was thrown from the pack to the final repacking.'"2
Though the process was rushed, it was nonetheless, photographically speaking, relatively long - especially the exposure time. A photographer might expose his glass plate negative to the sun for as much as thirty seconds. Not all exposures were that long, but all were certainly longer than those made with modern day cameras, usually only a fraction of one second. Any movement occurring during an exposure of as little as one thirtieth of a second will appear as a blur on the negative and in the picture. In the longer exposures of the wet-plate process, movement would appear as blurs or as faded and multiple images. Photographs featuring multi-headed dogs and ghostly looking humans remind us that photographs document time as well as objects and space.
The timing of plate preparation and exposure made images of battle, especially as we think of them today, impossible. Even if a photographer could manage to set up shop close enough to a battle to be able to photograph it, the movement of the scene would result in an indecipherable blur. The size of the portable operation also made close candid shots difficult. The contrived looking scenes of soldiers at leisure are, no doubt, the outcome of the limitations of the medium, as well as a perpetuation of the convention of posing for daguerreotype portraits with exposure times of up to twelve minutes.3
A student in the school of Civil War field photography, O'Sullivan no doubt gained an awareness of and respect for time and learned great patience. Josephine Cobb, a Specialist for the National Archives, brings home to us just how much patience was needed:
"Often in planning to photograph a significant war scene, the photographer found that no clear site could be discovered where their cameras could be set up, free of protruding branches or foliage. Occasionally a breath of wind, if not a stiff breeze, started up at the instance of exposure, thus ruining the chances of obtaining a picture. Horses, cows, and dogs, ambling back and forth within range of the camera, otherwise marked a failure for the photographer.
"Without the cooperation of the commanding officer of a military unit, group photographs and views of men at drill and on the march were not possible for the camera of the 1860s. Thus the photographer must be able to persuade the officer in command of the unit that photographs were desirable at the same time that other factors were favorable.
"Once the vies were made, there were other possibilities of failure; a bug on the wet collodion before the plate had dried; drops of perspiration settling on the plate within the darkroom tent; floating leaves and other debris in the creek or stream where the photographer washed his plates after their development. And the fact that only in strong sunlight could outdoor views be made at all, made the work of the Civil War photographers arduous and uncertain..."4
Cobb's description speaks not only to the patience that must have been required of a good Civil War photographer, but to the commitment as well. O'Sullivan's work in field photography during the war required a level of involvement that bespeaks a commitment to photography and to the war that far transcends a mere financial interest in the project. There was work to be done copying maps as well as in the field, some of which he did. But O'Sullivan traveled for three years with the Army of the Potomac, serving under six generals, and in some cases risking his life, twice having his camera knocked from his hand by shell fragments.5 The following two pictures are of batteries in action. O'Sullivan took the first at Fredericksburg, "under fire of Confederate guns."6 In taking the second view at Petersburg, O'Sullivan exposed himself to the Confederate line, just 1500 feet away.7
Traveling with the Army of the Potomac, eating with the mess, O'Sullivan's documentary project was more than mere record making, it was a direct, personal, and comprehensive confrontation with the war. It bespeaks a taste for travel and adventure, a respect for the subject of war, and the photographer's need for direct confrontation with his subject in endeavoring to portray it. The need for direct confrontation with his subject in turn bespeaks a thoughtfulness in O'Sullivan's approach to his subject and to his project. It was not enough that he be at the right place at the right time. He could have perhaps worked out of Washington, traveling to the scenes of the aftermath of battle, including the corpse laden battlefields that were so popular. Or, he could have concentrated on one aspect of the war as his contemporary, H.J. Russel, concentrated on pictures of technology, transportation, and construction.8 Instead, he immersed himself in the experience of war and photographed it as comprehensively as the medium would allow, from the boredom of camp life, to the traces of the technological feats of construction and destruction. Ultimately, this suggests that a personal understanding of his subject was important to O'Sullivan, and an essential part of his project. While O'Sullivan's photographs have the look of objectivity, the process by which he selected and made them depended upon the photographer's personal patience and commitment, his understanding and experience of the war, and his concept of documentation.