Alexander Gardner

The Washington Post and the New York Times are doing some excellent work, commemorating the sesquicentennial with regular blog updates and articles. (Particularly the WaPo, which – unlike the Times – makes these available for free.) I’m trying not to piggyback too much on their reportage, but this piece on Alexander Gardner is a great introduction to (arguably) the war’s greatest photographer.

In 1869, Gardner asked Congress to purchase his photographs, describing them as national treasures, according to Katz’s history. Congress was not interested.

When Gardner died 13 years later, his estate consisted of, among other things, books, and furniture, but, apparently, no photographic material.

Some of his priceless negatives may have been sold as scrap glass, according to Katz’s study. Many were acquired by collectors, and in 1884 again offered for sale to the government. The government still was not interested.

When the 1893 cache was discovered, a Post reporter visited Gardner’s son, Lawrence, a Washington insurance executive, who said the old negatives were probably his father’s.

After that, their fate is uncertain…

The Smithsonian said it has a few photos — apparently Gardner’s — for which there is no provenance.

And William Stapp, former curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, said some Gardner negatives have “just vanished.”

I hope against hope that someone has boxes upon boxes of glass plate negatives stashed away, unknowingly, in an attic or storeroom. The Ken Burns series related the fact that most photographers went broke after the war, and sold their negatives to gardeners for use in greenhouses. It’s depressing to imagine how many striking or important images of the war were lost to ultraviolet rays and humidity.

Oh, and kudos to the writer (or webmaster) of this piece for including hyperlinks to each photo referenced. The only disappointment is that they didn’t link to full-size photos; there’s no zoom function to see details such as these:

Off to the side, one young soldier stares back at the camera with a look of anguish in his eyes.

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