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The Carletonian

Sinister Civil War photos unearth veiled U.S. history

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Walk around campus and you are guaranteed to see someone snapping a photo of the chapel, the sky, or just a selfie.

Photos are everywhere and we don’t think anything of them. Have you ever been taking a random Snapchat and thought, when did photography become mainstream?

If you said yes, I recommend heading over to the Pearlman Teaching Gallery in the Weitz, and taking a look at the gallery titled Vintage and Local Photography and the American Civil War. Photography’s inception can be traced back to before the Civil War, but it was this rupture in the country that changed America’s perception of nationhood and introduced some of the first American villains through, oftentimes, eerie photographs.

Entering the gallery, non-art enthusiasts might think to themselves that this is just another boring exhibit dedicated to antique photos. However, the Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner photographs that line the walls of the gallery are in every US History textbook. The majority of images in this exhibit are literal representations of battlefields and soldiers.

To people during of this era, these images would have been mesmerizing. Scanning the images and seeing dead soldiers littered throughout the landscape was comparable to watching a television show; it was unlike anything that people had experienced. In today’s world we take photos for granted, whereas they used to shake people to their core, especially the images associated with the assassination of President Lincoln.

In the exhibition, the most understated and possibly most interesting set of photographs are located on the back wall of the gallery. These images focus on the conspiracy associated with the assassination of President Lincoln. In particular, a photograph by Alexander Gardner of Lewis Payne stands out among the rest.

Payne, the failed assassin of Secretary State William H. Seward, was a man in his mid-twenties with a perfect physique and symmetrical jawline. In this photo he poses in a nondescript black turtleneck, which feels as if it could have been removed from last week’s photo shoot for Hollister.

Yet, this man was part of an elaborate plan, with John Wilkes Booth, to kill President Lincoln and his closest confidants in the White House. Payne’s essence creates a complex and dark center to the gallery as a whole.

Yes, there are images of soldiers, battlefields, newspaper clippings, and a fun stereoscope to play with. But Payne, and the image of his death by hanging, reveals the true darkness of the Civil War.

This image highlights a true sociopath and villain of the country’s past. It becomes even more chilling when one Googles his biography and discovers that this image has become an Internet meme for the confederate’s cause. Honestly, it’s pretty easy to overlook the pretty boy persona of this image, but with a little context the darkness of Payne still rings true in contemporary times.

It takes context to understand old photographs, and that may turn you off, but The Pearlman Gallery provides fascinating stories and information that will change your perception of the Civil War.

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