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Online Exhibits > Civil War Photographs by George Barnard


Exhibit Text

George N. Barnard (1819-1902) was a successful and well-known New York photographer when the Civil War began in 1861. After working for Mathew Brady (ca. 1823-1896) and Alexander Gardner (1821-1882), Barnard was hired in early 1864 as the official photographer for General Sherman's command. When Sherman captured Atlanta from the Confederates on September 1, 1864, Barnard shifted his operation from Chattanooga to Atlanta. He photographed the city, the occupying Union troops, and the earthwork fortifications. When Sherman abandoned Atlanta for his famous "March to the Sea," Barnard accompanied the Union army.

He began photographing again in Savannah, Georgia, which was captured on December 23, 1864. In early 1865 he took pictures of the ruins of Columbia, Charleston, and Fort Sumter, South Carolina. When the war ended in April 1865, Barnard began work on the publication of a book of his photographs. He returned to the ruined South early in 1866 and photographed sites he had missed during the war. Later that year Barnard published Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, each volume containing sixty-one original photographs. A copy of the book and two prints from it were on display at the Snite Museum of Art, loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago.

George Barnard's photographs can be appreciated on many different levels. Remember that at the time of the Civil War there were no movies, television, or half-tone reproductions of photographs in the press. Photographs presented the curious public with a detailed, "impartial" view of the places where important recent events had occurred. Today we might peer at them as though looking through a window into the past, studying faces, clothing, structures, and city streets that have now vanished. Barnard also intended for these photographs to have a much deeper meaning. He was constructing a subtle and complex meditation on the meaning of the war, its destructive, irrational power, and the future of America. For example, many of the views feature large areas where the grasses and brush have been trampled or wiped out completely. This was meant to show how the passing of the armies had wasted and destroyed the landscape.

Another subject Barnard favored was trees. Sometimes they serve as compositional devices, uniting the ground with the sky, or they offer shade and shelter. In other images they are dead, devoid of leaves, or present only as a shadow. These dead or wounded trees are another metaphor for the effects of the war on all living things. The numerous images of ruined buildings in Charleston add further depth to Barnard's message. They show how the old order of the plantation South was now destroyed and in ruins. They also suggest that America has "come of age," that it has become more like the older civilization of Europe, with its many ruins and remains of extinct cultures. Our youthful innocence is gone. Barnard frequently placed figures in his photographs that gaze off into the distance, lost in meditation. These individuals are an invitation to us, the viewers, to also carefully observe the destruction shown, and meditate on its meaning.

Barnard later had studios in Chicago, where he survived the fire of 1871, and in Charleston, South Carolina. He returned to Rochester, New York, and worked briefly for the young George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera. A gentle and modest man who loved the company of children, Barnard died in 1902 at the age of 82. His contribution to Civil War photography was almost forgotten, but in recent years his work has been rediscovered, and he is now considered one of the most important photographers of the period.