Culture Shock: The first photograph of the casual horror of war

Look at A Harvest of Death, on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and you’ll begin to see why the young Irish-American Timothy O’Sullivan was perhaps the single most important photographer of the American Civil War

Mere detritus: in Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph A Harvest of Death human beings are dumped across a careless, pitiless landscape. Photograph: Library of Congress

Mere detritus: in Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph A Harvest of Death human beings are dumped across a careless, pitiless landscape. Photograph: Library of Congress

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 01:00

It is one of the key images of modernity. The bodies of men are scattered in a field like litter, their feet bootless, their arms akimbo. The view stretches to the low hills on the horizon and a blurry rider on a dark horse, but the eye is drawn to the face of the dead man at the front.

His eyes are screwed shut but his mouth is roundly open, forming a perfect circle of hell. This is arguably the first photograph that shows the casual horror of war, the way it dumps human beings across a careless, pitiless landscape. It is an image that defies all talk of glory or of significance. These men are mere detritus.

The photograph, which features centrally in Photography and the American Civil War, a superb exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was made 150 years ago, in July 1863, two days after the Battle of Gettysburg in the American civil war. It is modern in three different ways.

Firstly, it captures the consequences of something new in the world – industrial warfare, the toll taken by efficient machines of mass killing on fragile human flesh. (If the politicians and generals who led the first World War had looked more closely at these images, they would not have been shocked at the sheer scale of the carnage in this new kind of warfare).

Secondly, it is itself an expression of that industrial world, of the technology which could make such images on a battlefield and mechanically reproduce them for commercial sale to a mass audience. (This particular picture, under the title A Harvest of Death, was part of a portfolio called Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, the first American photographic book) .

And thirdly, the photograph is modern in a less obvious but equally profound way: it points to the slipperiness of images that will become such a theme of 20th century culture. Photographs promise truth (“the camera never lies”) while themselves being open to manipulation of every sort. A Harvest of Death captures this ambiguity perfectly. It is shockingly “real” even now, and we can imagine how brutally authentic it must have seemed to 19th century viewers who were not inured to pictures of atrocity.

Yet it is also, in the context of its publication, highly untruthful. In the Sketch Book the caption described the corpses as those of dead Confederates and drew the comforting moral that “they paid with life the price of their treason”. This is in fact a lie – the dead are Union soldiers. Moreover, a second image of the same men, shot from a different angle, describes them as “our men” who had died heroically in the “field where General Reynolds fell”. John Reynolds had become a Union martyr and there was a demand for images of the place where he had died. Hence the same men presented from one angle as rebels who deserved their fate are seen from another as republican martyrs.

All of this gives these photographs real significance in the emergence of modern culture. But to be parochial, it is striking to think that they are also part of Irish culture. They were made by a man of 23, Timothy O’Sullivan. His exact origins are obscure, but he was almost certainly born in Co Cork in 1840 and left Ireland with his family, probably during the Great Famine.

He comes into view in the late 1850s, working as an assistant to the Irish-American photographer Mathew Brady in Washington. (Brady is the name that most people associate with Civil War photography, but in fact he was much more important as an entrepreneur and promoter than as an image-maker. O’Sullivan is a vastly more important photographer). Between then and his death from tuberculosis at 42, O’Sullivan had two remarkable careers – as perhaps the single most important photographer of the civil war and as a pioneering (in every sense) maker of images of the American west.

It says something about our notion of what Irish culture is that O’Sullivan’s achievements are scarcely acknowledged here. Those achievements are, at one level, technical. It is hard to grasp just how difficult it was to make images in the field in the 1860s. Brady and Alexander Gardner (who put together the Sketch Book that contains over 40 of O’Sullivan’s pictures) led a team of photographers at the first major engagement of the war, the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia in1861. They came back with not a single useable image. O’Sullivan made life even more difficult by using the very tricky technique of glass plate collodion negatives. Yet, in the Metropolitan show, his pictures stand out for their vividness and clarity.

But O’Sullivan’s brilliance goes far beyond his technical mastery. His vision is that of an artist. In A Harvest of Death you can see that he has thought as radically about perspective as any serious painter would. The standard point-of-view of the time is that of eye level. But O’Sullivan has placed his camera very close to the ground, bringing the viewer down to the supine level of the dead. The angle makes the ground seem to rise towards the blank, merciless horizon, making the whole image tilt between a raw and brutal immediacy and a timeless absurdity. He is consciously making a photograph, not just of this war, but of war itself.

fotoole@irishtimes.com

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