The Civil War As Modern Photography Backdrop

American Artisans, History, People, Traditions
on June 2, 2002

At the peak of his success as a portrait photographer in the mid-1800s, Mathew Brady turned his camera to the Civil War. Determined to document the face of war on a grand scale, Brady organized corps of photographers to follow troops on the battlefields. Friends tried to discourage him, but Brady persevered.

“I had to go,” he later said. “A spirit in my feet said, ‘Go,’ and I went.”

Some 150 years later, the same spirit got into Rob Gibson’s feet, and he too went. Packing his belongings and a passion for Civil War-era photographic methods, Gibson left his job as an engineer at General Motors in upstate New York and moved to Gettysburg, Pa. It was there, on the historic cobblestones of Steinwehr Avenue, that he opened Gibson’s Photographic Studio amidst the patriotic revelry of Memorial Day weekend. That was in 1999, and Gibson hasn’t looked back.

Always captivated by Civil War photography, he spent years studying dusty volumes on the disappearing techniques of 19th-century photography. He pored over old photos, using a magnifying glass to scrutinize obscure background objects and burned the midnight oil, cracking books at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.—the international museum of photography and film. It was there Gibson discovered an old field camera that belonged to Mathew Brady. He was hooked.

Gibson struck gold when he found an original Anthony Studio camera from the Civil War era in an antique shop. The camera lens belonged to a Confederate photographer named Walzl from Baltimore. Some of Walzl’s subjects included the Confederate capital, Jefferson Davis, and John Mosby—images possibly captured through the same lens now used in Gibson’s studio.

Gibson’s Photographic Gallery, a working replica of a Civil War-era studio, is divided into four areas, just as the studios of days gone by. The gallery room is a reception area, adorned with Victorian furniture and the fruits of Rob’s photographic labors. It also is a gathering place for re-enactors, who clomp up the wooden stairs in their heavy ankle-high shoes called brogans, to wait in woolly Union blue and Confederate gray uniforms for their portraits to be taken.

The wardrobe room is filled with period clothing for men, women, and children: military, civilian, Union, Confederate. Hoops and skirts, jackets and hats, bonnets and collars, and hairnets and boots—all the very best that meticulous reproduction can produce.

“We try to make the entire process as authentic as possible,” Gibson says. “We’re sticklers for authenticity.” Shots of Union and Confederate soldiers together, or a husband with his wife and his firearm, simply would not have happened in the Mathew Brady days. It doesn’t happen at Gibson’s, either.

The operating room—the bright white chamber where the photographs are taken—is bathed in natural light from a northern skylight. Light is diffused through the room by natural sunlight, mirrors, and reflectors, just as photographers lighted their studios in the 1800s. No artificial backgrounds are used. Curtains or columns, and perhaps a simple prop, are the only embellishments. For Gibson, the focus is on the people.

“Most people look at old photos and think of the Civil War days as times of brown and white,” says Gibson. “But the grass was just as green. The sky was blue. People bled red.”

Photography in the United States was barely 20 years old when the Civil War started, and it came of age during that titanic conflict. 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. The work of scores of photographers during the Civil War accelerated that progress.

The photographic process Gibson employs is wet plate collodion—a liquid that creates film on a plate of glass. “Collodion was first used in the Crimean War as a liquid bandage,” Gibson explains. “From there, early photographers realized they could capture an image on glass.”

Gibson specializes in ambrotypes—images on glass. He’s also a master of tintypes and cartes de visite (small prints mounted on cards). With only a handful of skilled wet plate photographers in the world, Gibson is in high demand. He’s given demonstrations and lectured at the Smithsonian Institution and the White House News Photographers Association. He’s appeared on and consulted for PBS, The History Channel, and A&E. His photographs have been used in the Camp Chase Gazette, a magazine for re-enactors, and for Greystone’s Unknown Civil War Series. He’s become something of an institution around Gettysburg, where Gibson’s Photographic Gallery is the latest must-see attraction for Civil War buffs and tourists.

“Watching Gibson work,” says Mary Panzer, curator of the National Portrait Gallery, “is like looking over the shoulder of Mathew Brady.”