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Walking into the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872,” I found myself immediately transported back to a time in my own life. I stood in front of a photograph that I recognized and knew well. It was a photo of the American Frontier; a simple landscape dotted with teepees in the plains of Wyoming. It was also a photo my father kept on his wall all throughout my childhood. I stood at this photograph transfixed as I peered into two dimensions of time. One, a very familiar history of my own time as a child growing up on those same plains in Wyoming; and the other, a landscape in American history on the brink of modernization and a way of life that will be completely lost by the turn of the century.

Alexander Gardner made his name photographing the horrors of the Civil War, publishing macabre books on battlefield dead, bringing Abraham Lincoln’s likeness to the average citizens home, and photographing western landscapes sprouting awkward houses. He was one of the first photographers to work in the field documenting our countries narrative as it unfolded. Gardner would also be one of the first photographers to grapple with the ethics and morality of photojournalism, and would lay the groundwork for what it means to be a war photographer and what is and isn’t appropriate to publish.

Gardner, through his photographs, exists in a sliver of time of what America once was and what America was driving to be. Photos of American Indians in traditional clothing trying their hand at Washington politics in attempt to reverse the already inevitable. And an America barreling towards modernization through Civil War, transcontinental travel, and western expansion.

Excuse me while I get sentimental here. While I stood transfixed on the photo of the American West that my father hung at my childhood home, I saw American history through his eyes. I felt a longing for a history that I share through my birthplace and American experience, but I didn’t recognize. I was born a short drive from where that photo was taken. But that America is gone. That America hangs on walls.

Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872 opens September 18 and bookends the National Portrait Gallery’s series documenting the Civil War.

 

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