The photography of the Civil War is perhaps the single most important element that stimulates our interest in the conflict. Yet no aspect of the war is so routinely taken for granted. Most Civil War books that feature original war photographs use them exclusively as illustrations and ignore the underlying story of how and why the images were made.
Photography in the United States was 21 years old when the Civil War started and, literally, had come of age. The craft had undergone dramatic changes since the mirror image of the daguerreotype -the first commercial form of photography- was introduced in the United States in 1839. Even more progress was made during the war.
Three basic forms of photography existed during the war. The most common were individual portraits of soldiers taken by itinerant army camp photographers and small-town photographers. These one-of-a-kind images were made on glass or metal, and placed in small glass-covered, fold-open wooden or gutta-percha cases. The images on glass are called ambrotypes. The metal images are called tintypes or ferrotypes. The number of cased images made during the war no doubt exceeded a million.
The second basic form of photography was the carte de visite. The carte de visite, or cdv, was also primarily a portrait photograph, except it was made with a glass, wet-plate negative. The negative allowed for the creation of unlimited copies. Prints were made on albumen paper, the photographic paper of the day. Generally, photographers used a four-lens camera to produce four cdv negatives on a 7x9 inch glass plate. Each negative produced a print that was mounted on a card about the same size as today's trading cards. The more expensive cdv format was more commonly favored by army men of higher rank. Cdv portraits of generals, statesmen, actors and actresses and other 19th century celebrities were commercially sold by the thousands.
The third basic form of Civil War photography were the photographs taken in the field by nationally known photographers and firms such as M. B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, George S. Cook and the E & H.T. Anthony Co. These photographs were taken on glass plate negatives and printed on albumen photographic paper. An estimated 5,000 or more battlefield, camp and outdoor photographs were created for military use and for commercial sale. The majority were 3-D photographs, called stereo views or stereographs, taken with a twin-lens stereoscopic camera. Original battlefield photographs from the Civil War are most commonly found today as 3x6 inch stereo views.
In our time, Civil War photography has gradually come into its own. Historian William A. Frassanito, author of four major Civil War photography books, was the first to extensively use the photographs of the war as tools for historical research. In doing so, Frassanito advanced our understanding of the photography to an immeasurable degree. Bob Zeller's The Civil War in Depth, published in 1997, was the first book to present war photographs in their original 3-D format. And photographer-reenactors such as Rob Gibson have revived the lost art of wet plate photography.