Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Alexander Gardner, the birth of photojournalism and modern stereoscopic photography

When Alexander Gardner, preeminent Civil War photographer and, by all accounts, the inventor of modern photojournalism (if not Photoshop), saw a digital camera hanging off the shoulder of a visitor at Hollenberg Pony Express Station last Saturday, his smile turned to a frown. 

“You call that a camera?” he sneered in a slight Scottish bur. “This is a camera.”

This was a vintage 1860s-era wet plate negative model with dark polished wood, gleaming brass accents and a black cowl rakishly draped from the back like Zorro’s cape. It was big, it was bulky, it was beautiful, and quite unlike the plastic and titanium contraption of the startled visitor.

Gardner then pointed to an even larger camera off to the side perched on what appeared to be a tripod fashioned from crutches. What set it apart was not one lens, but an evenly-matched pair.

“Now that,” he said lovingly, “is a real camera.”

When asked why two lenses instead of one, his eyes, dark and piercing beneath grizzled brows, swiveled to transfix the impertinent and apparently clueless visitor with a merciless glare.

“Your head has two eyes,” he said. “Why shouldn’t your camera?”


Gardner, or, as was the case, Doug McGovern, an historical re-enactor from Hutchinson, was at the Pony Express Station for a day-long presentation entitled “Photography for Two Eyes.” The scope and breadth of the discussion was as sweeping as it was eclectic, with elaborations and examples on the history of photography, its various processes including wet plate collodion, ambrotypes, tintypes and paper photographs, glass plate sizes and how they were used for diverse photographic products spanning the gamut from miniature locket-sized photos called gems to cabinet sizes, Gardner’s role in early photojournalism, stereoscopic slides and three dimensional pictures and, for modern photographers with the latest digital cameras, a workshop on transforming single images into stereoscopic images through specialized software. 

Alexander Gardner might have been just another of history’s unknown billions had it not been for a fortunate meeting with Matthew Brady, McGovern said. He had emigrated to the United States from Glasgow, Scotland, en route to join an Owenite community in Iowa. The community, one of numerous  “Utopian” colonies spreading across the country, was founded by fellow Glasgow workers, and from previous visits Gardner had taken a liking to its goals. Before making it to Iowa, however, he found himself without a job and without very many prospects on the streets of New York City, and he discovered—probably not by chance—Brady’s famous studio. Within short order he had a job, not only as an assistant but as a business manager.

“Brady’s photos were exquisite,” McGovern said. “He was a great artist, but he didn’t understand bookkeeping.”

The studio was, in fact, close to bankruptcy. Under Gardner’s management it became solvent and, if anything, even more famous.

Gardner went on to become one of Brady’s field photographers who toured Civil War battlefields. Unlike other employees (known as Brady’s Photographic Corps) whose work was claimed by Brady, Gardner was ambitious and chafed under Brady’s shadow; after two years he struck out on his own. He took more portraits of Abraham Lincoln than any other photographer, was friends with Walt Whitman and, after the war, photographed the Western expansion for the Union Pacific Railroad. He eventually gave up photography for his work in the Masonic Mutual Relief Association. “Among his generation of photographers, he was doubtless the most many-sided and accomplished,” Alan Trachtenberg wrote in his book, “Reading American Photographs.”

Gardner, to McGovern, was a fascinating study in early photographic processes. From daguerrotype to tintype, wet-plate to dry-plate, from the exigencies of traveling battlefields with hundreds of fragile glass photographic plates and of days standing among thousands of rotting corpses while capturing scenes that would stun the world—and making more than a few question whether the war was worth its stated goals—to the increasing role of stereoscopic slides which provided a faux three dimension affect, Gardner experienced, and experimented, with them all. 

At the time, wet plate negatives required bright light and long exposures. Most photos portraying military action were, in fact, military inaction, with soldiers and generals and dignitaries standing around in static poses. Gardner convinced Brady that they had to get out of the studio and onto the battlefield to record the historical significance of the war. 

Theirs was not true photojournalism as we know it today, McGovern said. The photographers and their wagons carrying precious chemicals and glass plates remained behind the lines during the fighting, and they were given permission to tour the battlefield only after enemy troops had withdrawn. The work was ghastly and under the most trying conditions. It was also excruciatingly slow. By the end of a normal day, three men working in unison had between 25 to 30 photographs. 

The end result was met with trepidation by newspaper publishers. Suddenly, images of bodies stacked against stone walls or filling trenches like so much cordwood forced editors to weigh the issues of such graphic reportage. A New York Times editor advised Brady not to publish them because there were “too” realistic. When Brady did, another editor compared his reaction to seeing them against the normal published lists of war dead. “Before we get away from our [breakfast table], we’ve already forgotten the names on the lists,” he wrote. “What Mr. Brady has done to bring the war home to us could not have been more significant if he’d piled dead bodies in front of us.”

“Suddenly, the innocence was gone,” McGovern said. “People began to understand what war was all about.”

Some controversy surrounded Gardner after it came to light that he occasionally added props to his images or, in some cases, relocated bodies to better frame a scene. 

By the time Gardner was allowed onto the battlefield, the guns had long since been removed, McGovern said. Undaunted, Gardner would sometimes add his own rifle to a body to dramatize the subject. One famous image of a fallen sharpshooter included Gardner's rifle. To his credit, McGovern said, the sharpshooter was real, the scene was perfect, everything was in place to tell the story. The only thing added was the rifle. 

Though Gardner predated photojournalist ethics (a foreign concept at the time), nevertheless the practice was met with some disdain. “Naughty, naughty Mr. Gardner,” McGovern chided. 


Tintypes couldn’t fade but could be folded to fit into pockets or rucksacks, making them popular with soldiers during the Civil War. Other processes had their positives and negatives, but one of the most unusual was stereoscopic photography, and the one that resonated most with McGovern.
Prior to his involvement in the Kansas Alliance of Professional Historic Performers, he helped develop camera and video systems that replicated stereoscopic vision in remotely-driven vehicles. He and his colleagues discovered that a remote-driven vehicle operated via video link could perform flawlessly on smooth-surfaced roads using a single TV camera. Real world situations, notably in combat zones, rarely have good roads, however, and pot holes, drop-offs, slopes, steep shoulders and debris (called “negative obstacles”) made piloting those vehicles nearly impossible. Adding a second camera allowed operators to view the terrain much as if they were there in person.

Stereo photography used similar concepts, he said. Stereoscopes, handheld contraptions that look like a cross between a slide projector and opera glasses, predate photography. They first appeared in the 1830s based on principles of binocular vision. Though each eye records a slightly different image, the human brain fuses them together into a single image that allows us to perceive spatial depth. Near objects appear near, far objects appear farther away. 

The effect was so startling in early stereoscopes that Oliver Wendell Holmes described it as  “dream-like.” “The mind,” he said, “feels its way into the very depths of the picture.”

By merging 19th century technology with 21st century technology, McGovern has discovered how to create stereoscopic slides portraying—then as now—battlefields, portraits, landscapes and, with a nod toward Gardner, photojournalism. His slides of tornado-ravaged scenes are breathtaking, and his Civil War battle scenes, taken during historical reenactments, could easily be the work of early photographers.

His dual-lens stereo camera, so lovingly admired, is actually hollow. A small cutout on the front folds down to reveal a cavity where he places dual cameras mounted to a rail. 

For those without the two-camera setup, a single camera can be almost as effective by a procedure he calls the “cha cha.” “Take a picture, move three inches, take a picture,” McGovern said. Three inches represents the distance between a normal pair of eyes; Mexican maracas, or gourd rattles, are not required.

During the afternoon session, McGovern led a handful of photographers onto the grounds of Hollenberg Pony Express Station where they tried their hand at the cha cha. The images were downloaded to his laptop, tweaked into stereo alignment through software programs and then printed out for the visitors. 

Though he sells stereoscopes on his website, he rarely uses them himself anymore. “Once you train your eyes, you can see them just fine,” he said.
What interested him the most in stereo photography was the ability to see a battlefield as his grandfather saw it. “The really significant thing, what drew me into this, was when I researched where my grandfather fought in the Civil War,” McGovern said. “This was the hill at Vicksburg that his unit charged; this was the road he marched down. And it’s all overgrown now, it doesn’t look the same. The only way to get the picture was through stereo.”

Once he perfected his technique, the hills, the roads, the grassy fields emerged into a three dimensional landscape so deep and wide that one could fall into it. The effect was staggering.

“My daughter sometimes asks why I do this, what I hope to accomplish,” he said. “Is it for the money? No photographer ever died rich. The reason I do it is this: when I hand someone the stereoscope and they look through it, the reaction is immediate. It’s instant gratification. There’s absolutely no delay in their response. ‘Wow!’ they say.”

Even though he uses digital cameras, the effect is the same as it was in Gardner's time. “What a fearfully suggestive picture!” Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote. “It is a leaf torn from the book of God's recording angel.”

For more information on McGovern’s work, visit his website at


Carol said...

This was fascinating, Tom. Very well written, and focused on a reader with interests like mine. Loved it!

Tom Parker said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Carol. I had a great time covering the event.