If the question of what the war really was revealed it to be much more than objective facts and events, it followed that the question of how to portray the war was just as important. In fact, the reality of war being a matter of perspective, the way in which war was portrayed determined what was being portrayed. As indicated above, Trachtenberg and Sweet point out the failure of the Civil War photographs to represent the war in all its reality. The photographs suppress the war as political under portrayals of soldiers as representative of a universal humanity, of death as natural, and of the war from a decidedly and exclusively Union perspective. Generally, they are right. The photographs fail to express political tensions, largely because they could not capture moments of confrontation. Furthermore, the body of Civil War photographs contain few documents made by or of the Confederacy because its lack of resources made photography a luxury. Finally, the balance of anonymity and specificity with which soldiers were portrayed made them representative figures, standing for one another, soldiers in general, or humanity. This universalizing of the soldiers and the war eclipsed the political and confrontational reality of war.
If the Civil War photographers failed to represent the political reality, they did not fail to portray the visual and emotional reality of war. In general, photographers were, perhaps, ruled by popular expectations of objectivity from the photographic medium and for a historical subject. The photographs have every appearance of truth, with clear focus and a respectful distance from the subjects. At the same time, however, objectivity as we think of it today "had not yet become one of the preconditions of photojournalism." 23:
We are the products of a scientific age which, notwithstanding Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, is still spellbound by the idea of objectivity....In our search for irreducible realities, which we had hoped photography would help us demonstrate, we exhibit a type of human desperation in the face of both flux and subjectivity.24
Interestingly, the people facing the flux and subjectivity of the Civil War were not spellbound by the idea of objectivity the way we are today. Rather, their theories on art and science give subjectivity a place in truth. They embraced Ruskin, for example, who wrote:
Imitation can only be of something material, but truth has reference to statements both of the qualities of material things, and of emotions, impressions, and of thoughts...Hence truth is a term of universal application, but imitation is limited to that narrow field of art which takes cognizance only of material things...Whatever can excite in the mind the conception of certain facts, can give ideas of truth, though it be in no degree the imitation or resemblance of those facts...An idea of truth exists in the statement of one attribute of anything, but an idea of imitation requires the resemblance of as many attributes as we are usually cognizant of in its real presence.25
In fact, Raymond Williams points out in Keywords that the division between science and art was not as stark as it is today, quoting Constable as having said in the nineteenth century, "painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature."26 Significantly, Williams finds that the contrast between "objective as factual, fair-minded (neutra) and hence reliable, as distinct from the sense of subjective as based on impressions rather than facts, and hence as influenced by personal feelings and relatively unreliable," did not become settled until the late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century.27
We are shocked today, when we learn that Gardner and O'Sullivan dragged at least one of the bodies they found on the Gettysburg battlefield and portrayed it in a contrived death scene with the props of a gun and blanket in "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" (assisted by a sentimental narrative caption). However, viewed in light of Ruskin's statement, the interference with the subject which we consider a scandalous falsification was likely considered a means of representing the truth of the war. For, if that actual body was not at that actual place, the scene Gardner and/or O'Sullivan constructed is representative of the death and drama of war and provokes the emotions and thoughts which war itself provokes. In a sense, the photograph is doubly real, for it not only captures a real corpse on a real battlefield, but it also conveys the emotional reality of war.
Ultimately, this photograph is an artifact of conceptions of objectivity and reality belonging to the artists, Gardner and O'Sullivan, and to their audience. Their conception of objectivity demands the appearance of truth and reality, but not what we take, today, to be the substance of them, that is to say, a lack of personal interference. This is because it embraces a notion of reality which, itself, embraces subjectivity, emotions, thoughts, and impressions. In fact, the absence of the word "objectivity" until the end of the nineteenth century suggests that for most of that century, people's concepts of truth and reality were united with the concept of subjectivity. It is as though it had not occurred to them that truth or reality could exist outside of human perception. We tend to think that the idea of relativity originated in the twentieth century with Einstein and quantum physics when, in fact, O'Sullivan and his contemporaries had learned that lesson through their own confrontations with life.
Clearly, O'Sullivan could have faced a plethora of questions and problems concerning reality and representation as he took on the project of documenting the war. Given the level of commitment involved in field work, and the way in which he seems to have immersed himself in it, it is difficult to imagine that O'Sullivan did not deal with these questions and problems. He was not a mere recorder of facts, pointing his camera mindlessly at scenes that were plainly or already determined by others to be historical and therefore important and suitable. Rather, his was the task of perceiving scenes and creating images that could portray the complex reality of war as effectively as possible. In doing so, O'Sullivan must not only have become a skilled photographer, but also an artist with a sophisticated understanding of the issues of reality and representation.
As we shall see, O'Sullivan's photographs also suggest that he not only faced these questions, but dealt with them and used them to make powerful images. Throughout his photographs, we see a use of perspectives, both visual and conceptual, to represent his subject with truth and accuracy. Furthermore, O'Sullivan's willingness to deal with conceptual questions reflects a thoughtful character and a serious attitude toward photography, while his use of perspectives evinces an awareness of the role that perspective plays in defining and representing the truth and reality of something. From this perspective as well, we find that O'Sullivan was more than a recorder of facts and events, but a photographer and artist adept at dealing with issues of reality and representation.