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In 1990, Landscapes‘ prints were found in a trunk at the Medford Historical Society, a regional museum outside Boston. The society regularly led tours for schoolchildren, and one astute youngster mentioned to his father, Civil War buff Noah Dennen, that the museum hosted some Civil War relics. Dennen went to see them. When the curator, as an aside, showed him a trunkload of photos from the war, Dennen recognized only a few of them, and grew suspicious that he had stumbled upon something of real value. The collection was appraised and found to contain more than 5,400 rare photos, representing the work of most of the major photographers of the conflict. Once the personal cache of Gen. Samuel Crocker Lawrence, a Civil War veteran and one-time mayor of Medford, the photos had not been displayed in some 90 years.
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This find adds considerably to the visual record of the war. A photographic Peat Bog Man, the Medford collection gives historians, photography critics, and amateurs a new corpse to dissect, one whose features will undoubtedly yield new insights and inflame old debates: What significance should we attach to the presence of African-American servants in Union camps, for instance, and do these photos really show the advent of “total war”? Fortunately, Landscapes provides more than discussion topics; its prints share the fragile beauty of the most engaging Civil War photographs.
Kept from the front lines by their bulky equipment and the immediacy of their processing needs, wartime photographers spent most of their time documenting railroad embankments and artillery placements, or framing soldierly portraits. This collection—at least the images chosen for publication by Landscapes‘ editor, Constance Sullivan—presents many such out-of-the-way and after-the-fact shots. Yet they possess the delicate charm of something irretrievable; each landscape is haunted by the smoke of battle. Serene pools on Lookout Mountain, which towered above the Battle of Chattanooga, seem eerily calm: The reader expects a limbless body to drift into sight at any moment, or a cannon shot to mar the clear sky. A spidery train trestle in Whiteside, Tenn., waits only for the scream of artillery to bring it down in flames.
The collection also includes striking photos from George Barnard’s Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, a spiteful postwar offering detailing Sherman’s blazing trail across Georgia. These plates attest to Sherman’s thoroughness, not his charity: The disquieting and lonesome photos depict buildings destroyed but for their chimneys; locomotives helpless in their roofless roundhouses; train tracks and bridges blasted and burned into ruins.
It’s disturbing to imagine that a photographic document of bombed-out structures, suicidal charges, deadly ordnance, and a murderous civil war could be called “gorgeous.” But here it is.