Alexander Gardner b. October 17, 1821; d. 1882

Alexander Gardner
(b. October 17, 1821; d. 1882)

Alexander Gardner was a Scot who immigrated to the United States and was hired by Mathew Brady, for whom he photographed the American Civil War. However, Brady’s practice of signing his employees’ pictures did not meet with Gardner’s approval, and after some years he left Brady’s firm and opened his own gallery in Washington DC.
Unlike the somewhat contrived war pictures taken by Fenton, Gardner’s are so factual as to be almost macabre. His book, “Gardner’s two-volume Photographic Sketchbook of the War” (meaning the Civil War) was published in 1866. The following year he recorded the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. He also documented the execution of the conspirators against Lincoln, and Lincoln’s funeral. In addition, he embarked upon making a collection of photographs of convicted criminals, for the Washington police force.

It should also be added, however, that amongst the genuine pictures of the war there appear to be a few which are contrived, further proof that whilst the camera cannot lie, the person behind it can! For example, when Gardner arrived at the decisive scene of the war at Gettysburg two days after it had been fought, he set about photographing “Home of a rebel sharpshooter.” However, before taking the picture he had dragged the body of a Confederate some thirty meters to where he lies in the picture, turning the head towards the camera.
Gardner wrote:
On the nineteenth of November, the artist attended the consecration of the Gettysburg Cemetery, and again visited the “Sharpshooter’s Home.” The musket, rusted by many storms, still leaned against the rock, and the skeleton of the soldier lay undisturbed within the moldering uniform, as did the cold form of the dead four months before. None of those who went up and down the fields to bury the fallen had found him. “Missing,” was all that could have been known of him at home, and some mother may yet be patiently watching for the return of her boy, whose bones lie bleaching, unrecognized and alone, between the rocks at Gettysburg.

Fine words, indeed, adding to the drama but hardly creditable Souvenir hunters would have removed the rifle within days. In any case, the weapon in the photograph was not used by sharpshooters. It may have been Gardner’s prop. This faked photograph has been well researched by William Frassanito in his book “Gettysburg: A Journey in Time” (1975)
So, does the camera ever lie? Well, as digital photography grows apace, almost anything is achievable! But what of the past? Like any artist, a photographer may want to portray some emotion, evoke a reaction, put out a thought of his own. The lens sees what it sees, but what appears is inevitably subjective. And as anyone reading Garner’s notes that accompany his photography shows, not only the picture itself but also the works may influence how we perceive things.
Many of Garners pictures were Stereoscopic ones.


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