Sharing a Civil War Photo with a Million People

by Garry E. Adelman

A tree falls on a shed and all but destroys it. A passing student notices that from a certain angle the portion of the shed still standing looks just like a man on horseback. It is uncanny; a talented artist could hardly do better. The shed remnant seems ready to fall any minute. The student pulls out his smartphone, opens the camera app, points it at the shed, snaps a digital color picture, and uploads it to a social media site. He types in the words “The Shed-less Horseman” and presses a button, pleased with his clever title. In less than two minutes his work is done. Of the few hundred people who first see it, fifty of them share it with others. Another 200 people share it, and then a particularly popular page posts it. Within four hours, more than one million people have seen it.   

Now, consider the same scenario for a student of 150 years ago.

A tree falls on a shed and all but destroys it. A passing student notices that from a certain angle the portion of the shed still standing looks just like a man on horseback. The shed remnant seems ready to fall any minute. The student thinks others would like to see it, too. He runs over to the local photographer’s business—there is at least one is every town by 1863. He tells the photographer, a Mr. J. Brunner, that a photograph should be taken before the shed falls down. Based on the boy’s emphatic description, Brunner agrees. He decides not to take a tintype or a Daguerreotype photo, however. These photographic processes are very difficult to copy. He will need to use the more modern wet-plate process invented the previous decade—one that results in a reproducible photographic negative. 

Brunner is a portrait photographer—like nearly all 1860s American photographers, he takes almost all his pictures of people in his studio. The shed is 400 yards away. If only his subject was few hundred yards closer things would be easier. At 400 yards his “wet plate” glass negative will dry out before it can be developed. He will have to develop the photograph at the shed. Brunner carefully seals his chemicals into glass bottles and snatches up two 4" x 10" plates of glass that have been carefully cut, edged, and dusted. He places these items along with developing trays and other items into a heavy, lightproof box and asks the boy to carry it out toward the school. The photographer follows, carrying one of his smaller cameras—a 10" x 10" x 12" box with twin lenses on the front and frosted glass on the back—a heavy black cloth, and a wooden tripod. They walk 400 yards.

Recording a Photograph

The shed still stands. The boy was right—it looks just like a horseman. Even during a bloody civil war this image will gain attention. He places the camera on the tripod and splays the legs out wide so the camera is but two feet off the ground and points it toward the shed. Being down low gives him the best angle for a good three-dimensional photo. His twin-lens camera records two photos at once, an eye-width apart. When seen through a special viewer, the twin photos will appear as a single 3-D image. Brunner kneels, places a black cloth over his head as well as over the top of the camera, and looks at the shed through the frosted glass. It is in color, but is upside down and out of focus. He adjusts the lens and the tripod until he sees his subject in focus.

Brunner walks over to his lightproof box and removes most of its contents. He covers the box with the cloth, kneels again, gets under the cloth, unhinges a dark hatch, and works by feel. Brunner opens a bottle of light-sensitive silver nitrate and pours a small amount into a tray. He leaves the cloth in place and emerges into the light, squinting. He dusts off one of the glass plates with a brush. He pours an ounce of thick, aromatic, auburn liquid called collodion onto its center and tips the glass, once to each corner, to spread the collodion and make a thin and even film of the fast-drying liquid on the glass. It will serve as the “film” that will hold the image onto the glass. He tips the few drops of remaining collodion back into the bottle and closes the cap. Under the cloth again, he bathes the glass in silver nitrate. The plate is now light sensitive.

Brunner removes a lightproof carrying box—a plate holder—that attaches to the back of the camera, puts it under the cloth, removes the glass plate, and places it by feel into the carrier. He walks it over to the camera, puts lens caps on the lenses, and slides the plate holder into the camera. All is ready. It’s a bright day. He estimates the time it will take to properly expose the plate—four seconds. He pulls out the dark slide, a detachable piece of the plate holder, exposing the plate to the lenses. He exhales and removes the lens caps. Now the plate itself is being bathed in the sun-lit scene captured by the lenses. He counts—one-two-three-four—and replaces the caps. An exposure has been made. One hour has elapsed since the boy saw the shed.

Magic

Brunner quickly puts the dark slide back into the plate holder to seal the light off from the plate when he removes the holder from the camera. He detaches the plate holder with the plate inside, grabs the cloth, and carries all to the developing box. He ducks under the cloth, removes the plate from its holder, and bathes it in a tray of liquid that is the developer. He fights off flies, summer heat, and stale air, and peers into the tray. He can see because a bit of “safe” light enters the box via a porthole covered by an orange red translucent sheet. An image begins to appear on the glass. He tips the tray back and forth to wash

the plate in developer. When his trained eye tells him it’s fully developed, he puts it in a water bath to stop the chemical development process. It is a form of 1860s magic, and this magician’s experience has paid off—the negative image looks beautiful. If he miscalculated the exposure time, if the wind made the “horseman” move, if his chemicals were outdated, he would have to expose another plate, spend more time. He puts the plate in a tray with fixer. Brunner holds the plate by its sides, emerges into the light, and uses the black cloth as a backdrop. The negative turns to positive. The shed’s artistic shape appears in black and white. 

The boy helps Brunner haul his gear back to the photographic gallery—400 yards with awkward, bulky, and heavy items, and of course the fragile panes of glass that are his glass plate negatives. The photographer removes the plate, shows the boy, and then places it in a metal box with a lit candle inside to fully dry the plate.  

Brunner seeks to distribute his unusual image. He scribbles a note and asks the boy if he’ll run to fetch his photographer’s assistant and take the note down to the local telegraph office. The note is to a major newspaper asking them whether they would be interested in buying the rights to convert the photo into an engraving or a “woodcut.” Photographs could not yet be printed in newspapers or magazines—they needed to be converted into a printable format. The boy is happy to help and takes off on his errands. Twenty minutes later, the telegraph operator taps out the message.

Distribution

Meanwhile, Brunner enacts his local plan—he also wants to sell printed copies of the photo. Each photo will have to be printed individually and mounted onto stiff cards. He hopes he can sell each one for fifty cents. He pulls out a 4" x 10" piece of stiff albumen photographic paper that has been coated with egg whites and salt. The egg whites, like collodion on the glass plate, provide the sticky surface that binds the light-sensitive silver nitrate to the paper. He steps into his hot darkroom, careful to avoid letting the sweat from his forehead fall onto the paper. He dips the albumenized paper in light-sensitive sliver nitrate and allows it to dry in the dark. Forty-five minutes later, the paper is dry. During those forty-five minutes, Brunner is light-sensitizing more paper. He takes the dry, now light-sensitive paper and places it in a contact printing frame with his recently exposed glass plate negative directly against it. He leans the frame onto a small easel on his back porch so the negative is facing the sun. About ten minutes later, the negative’s image has been printed in positive onto the paper.

He stops the print exposure by running water and a fixing solution over the print. Brunner hangs the print to dry in his studio. His assistant arrives. Brunner briefs him, and the two photographers repeat the printing process six more times while the first print dries. Two hours later, the first print is dry. Brunner trims the paper into two squares of about 3" x 3" each. He needs to put the left one on the right side and vice versa to trick the brain into seeing the 3-D effect. He mounts them side by side with glue onto a thick card, 3½" tall and 7" wide, pre-branded with his photography studio’s name—Brunner’s Skylight Gallery—across the bottom. Six hours have elapsed since the boy saw the shed.

Brunner glues a pre-printed label on the back of the card. It reads “Brunner’s Outdoor Artistic Stereoviews, No. ___” and leaves blank space for the title. He writes “36” into the provided space—his last published outdoor stereoview was his thirty-fifth—and titles the stereoview, “The Shed-less Horseman, created by a fallen tree.” He is pleased with his clever title—it will remind potential buyers of the popular Sleepy Hollow tale. As long as the sunlight lasts, the assistant makes more and more prints. He also uses a single-lens camera to create three more wet-plate copies of the negative. Tomorrow, they will be able to make multiple prints at the same time.

Brunner advertises the stereoview for sale on a slate in front of his store. It reads “The Incredible Shed-less Horseman captured by Brunner. Come in to see the stereoview.” 

By the end of the day, the shed has collapsed. Few saw the “horseman” in person. Brunner sells eleven stereoviews that day. Better yet, the boy has returned from the telegraph office with a response from the newspaper—if they can see it and they like it, they’ll print it. The newspaper office is seventy-five miles away—a solid two days on horseback. He opts to send a print to the newspaper via US Mail—it will take three days. Not bad. Brunner gives the boy his very own stereoview to keep. Brunner sells one of his copy negatives to a big New York stereoview maker for $50. He ends up selling 114 stereoviews out of his own gallery—by far his best-selling photo yet. 

The photo, converted into an engraving, appears in a popular illustrated news weekly. Within fourteen days, more than a million people have seen the Shed-less Horseman. This process of creating, printing, and sharing photographs was repeated countless times on battlefields and on the home front during the Civil War.

Compared with sharing the color photo with one million people today, it took eighty-four times longer in the fictitious narrative above. But the impulses, hopes, and processes are essentially the same in both examples. Things were simply slower and far more laborious back then—which is no doubt what will be said about today’s processes before long.

Ideas for Teachers

The art of taking pictures of events as they occurred predates the Civil War by many years. Photographic artists in the 1850s recorded daguerreotypes of lively streets, burning buildings, and people engaged in their various professions. Daguerreotypes were not easily reproducible, so a limited number of people would actually see a particular image. This changed, however, with the invention of the wet plate collodion process—glass plate images could be reproduced on paper by the thousands and marketed nationwide. In this way, the Civil War would be brought into the homes of Americans like no event before it. 

  • Have your students watch a video of a wet-plate photograph being made. Visit www.civilwarphotography.org.

Despite a popular myth about Civil War glass negatives being used for the glass in American greenhouses, most outdoor, documentary Civil War photos have survived and are accounted for. The Library of Congress and the National Archives hold the largest numbers of original negatives, with substantial print collections at the Gilder Lehman Collection, the Army Heritage Education Center, and the Smithsonian Institutions.

  • The Library of Congress offers free, remote downloading of high-resolution photographs. Have your students locate, download, and explore Civil War photos.

Most Civil War photos were recorded as three-dimensional stereoviews. They were not only recorded with twin lenses but created as if they would be seen only in 3-D.

  • Show your students how Civil War photos are actually supposed to look or have them create their own 3-D photos. Visit www.civilwar.org/photos/3d-photography-special.

Garry E. Adelman is the director of history and education at the Civil War Trust and vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography.

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