Civil War Photography and Beyond

Several months ago, I attended an Alexandria Historical Society talk on Civil War photography by Bob Zeller, co-founder and president of The Center for Civil War Photography (more on that below).

I had been thinking about that talk when, last week, I had coffee with Dean DeRosa, a fellow local history enthusiast who has worked at Arlington House and Mount Vernon. He has a website called Virginia Vintage Photography, where he shares his love of stereoviews and other 19th century photographs.


Beginning around the time of the Civil War, photographers frequently used a stereoscopic camera, a camera with two lens about three inches apart. The goal was to mimic what our two eyes normally do: that is, combine two images to create a three-dimensional whole. The photographs are printed side-by-side, then looked at through a special viewer.

From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, stereoscopy was very popular. Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr., invented an inexpensive stereoscope viewer, which he did not patent. People bought images of places they could barely expect to see in person, from geysers of Yellowstone to the pyramids of Egypt to battlefields here and abroad. Portraits could also be taken in stereo. Sears and Roebuck and other retailers, Dean said, had catalogues of images to buy. A viewer sat in many a middle-class parlor, like a radio or TV in subsequent decades.

Dean became interested because his grandfather, a real estate agent in Washington State, had a stereoscopic camera and took pictures of properties he sold. Today, Dean uses a Fuji digital stereoscopic camera and takes then-and-now images, such as these at Mount Vernon. (old photo by Newton J. Johnson, new photo by Dean DeRosa, both on the Vintage Virginia website)

Dean’s combined interest in history and early photography led him to a significant discovery on ebay about 5 years ago: a stereoview image of Selena Gray, the enslaved personal maid of Robert E. Lee’s wife at Arlington House.

From the NPS website,

From the NPS website,

The discovery and purchase received a lot of media attention. Arlington House is currently under rehabilitation, but the photograph will get prominent billing when the mansion re-opens.

Dean used a simple stereoviewer to show me the Selena Gray image (needless to say, not the original)

Dean used a simple stereoviewer to show me the Selena Gray image (needless to say, not the original)

More on Civil War-Era Photography

Here’s a bit more about early photography that I learned from Bob Zeller:

Photographers developed pictures on the spot. A photographer wasn’t just a person with a camera. He (which they all seemed to have been) lugged a cumbersome wagon with glass plates and toxic chemicals to use immediately before and after the actual picture-taking. They could make multiple prints later, but the initial development—known as wet-plate photography—had to happen on-the-spot. Many darkroom wagons and tents show up in photos.

Library of Congress,

Library of Congress,

These glass plate negatives allow for detailed magnifications even today. Researchers study, re-study, peer at, re-peer at high-res images, zooming into a particular piece of a photo, and make such discoveries as Abraham Lincoln in the midst of a crowd at Gettysburg, identification of fallen officers, and previously undetected places in Alexandria, among others. You can do this yourself through the Library of Congress website, where you’ll find images of 80 MB or more (in addition lower-res versions such as used here.)

Mathew Brady was not a fake! Despite after-the-fact allegations to the contrary, he took and/or directed his assistants; according to Zeller, a la Steven Spielberg, he as a master director and scene-maker. As an add-on to #2, he has been recently spotted in a number of photos that he set up and then inserted himself in as one of the subjects.

Just about everyone could afford a portrait. Soldiers had tintypes or cartes de visite taken—including in studios in Alexandria—which they could send home. Women sent their photographs to their menfolk. Families sat for portraits. President Lincoln reportedly liked having his photo taken, and, of course, the visible aging on his face is something for all to see.

Photographers experimented with techniques used today (albeit, more advanced). Some photos were colorized at the time, including . Others have adding dramatic spurts of blood. Others created “motion pictures” by combining 4 images, each slightly different, to show a ship in motion, for example

Technology developed in the 1850s made Civil War field photography possible. Daguerrotypes, invented in the prior decades, made single-copy images.

About 3,000 photographers were attached to Union Army regiments. We hear about the famous, more entrepreneurial photographers who came in and out of the action, like Brady and Alexander Gardner. But others had more pedestrian duties, such as supporting intelligence and battle operations and taking portraits of individual photos.

Images of the Civil War were popular during and after the war. Bob Zeller disagrees with the idea that no one wanted to see the images. (It has been said that the public no longer had an appetite to see images of the war, Brady’s plates were used for greenhouses, etc.) He brought in articles and advertisements from the mid to late 1860s that show the demand for prints and for exhibitions.