Photography in the Civil War

by Zach Rosenberg

Introduction to Photography

The civil war was one of the greatest sequences in the history of photography. The way photography is looked at now is much different then the past. Groups and team of photographers were spread through valleys, battlefields and stampedes to take pictures. The number of photos taken during this time was greater then most events today. In the process of enjoyment and money-making, the photographers learned that these pictures would be used for other purposes later in life. The photos were enlarged, framed, and processed to eventually be sold in big quantities nationwide. Unfortunately, technology at the time was far less superior. Therefore, the photographers were forced to carry their heavy equipment place to place. That also included their somewhat portable, darkroom, which had to be moved by wagon. In the process of enjoyment and money-making, the photographers learned that these pictures would be used for other purposes later in life.

History of Photography

The first type of photography known to man was discovered in 1839. Named after Louis-Jaques-Mande Daguerre, the Daguerreotype process was started. It had taken many years and workers to develop the process. It was a multistep process in creating a Daguerreotype. It happened from an image printed onto a metal plate and later transferred to paper. About 20 years later, a newer and more popular way of photo development was released. It was called the wet-plate collodion method. It was favored by many people because of its shorter production time and its resistance toward chemicals. This type of photography was used for a great amount of time and is still available today. Throughout the remainder of the civil war, wet plate photography seemed to be the most commonly used.

Techniques of Photography

  • Daguerreotypes: Founded in 1839 by Samuel Morse, an artist.
  • Ambrotypes: A glass negative backed with black material. Painted in 1854, the ambroype was constructed, boxed and sold in portait studios. Cheaper price then daguerreo had been.
  • Tintypes: Otherwise known as the Ferrotype process. Introduced to the US in 1855. The process substituted an iron plate for glass, and was therefore cheaper than ambrotype. Works of art were often trimmed at corners and sides.
  • Carte de Viste: Otherwise known as CDV, which is a photographic calling card. Began in France in the 1840’s. The process involved a special camera that took eight shot poses and one negative.
  • Cabinet Cards: About thirty years after CDV’s were invented, the newest form of photography in the 1870’s was replaced by large Cabinet Cards. This used a similar photographic process but relied on a bigger printing area.

Wet Plate Photographic Process

The following is a step-by-step process on how wet plate photography takes place:
1. Use collodion to coat the plates glass in order to sensitize it to light.
2. Using a darkroom, submerge the plate in silver nitrate.
3. Place the glass into a light-tight container.
4. Insert the plate into the camera.
5. Let the cap on the camera set aside for 2-3 seconds, exposing it to the light.
6. Immediately take out the plate, still in the light-tight container, to the darkroom.
7. Develop the plate in a solution of pyrogallic acid.
8. Once the glass plate has been made (negative), it can be printed on paper and mounted.

Examples of Wet Plate Production

This video demonstrates the 19th century Wet-Plate process
He also teaches a brief history of the process. process.

This photo is a great example of the outcome of the Wet-Plate Taken over 150 years ago. Made by Mr. Gardner.

Who is Mathew Brady?

Mathew B. Brady was one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers. He is best known for his portraits of celebrities, and his documentation of the American civil war. People recognize him today for being the father of photojournalism.

Civil War History:
He earned his place in history by documenting the civil war on a grand scale by bringing his photographic studio right onto the battlefields. During the war, he spend over $100,000 dollars to create over 10,000 plates. His goal was to afterwards sell his pictures to the U.S Government. Unfortunately, when they refused to purchase them, he went into bankruptcy when he was forced to sell his New York City studio.

At the end of his career, Brady had photographed 18 of the presidents from John Adams to William McKinley. The thousands of photographs he took, have become the most important visual documentation of the time. His doings have led historians to know and learn furthermore of the era. One of his most recognized photographs were those done of Abraham Lincoln. Brady's picture of Lincoln now rests on the US $5 dollar bill along with the Lincoln penny.

Timeline of Mathew Brady's Life

Photographer Mathew Brady. Photo taken after Battle of Bull Run


Bringing the Battlefront to the Homefront. Civil War Trust.

Photography and the Civil War. 2010. The American Civil War Photo Gallery.
June 2008. <>

Photography and the Civil War, 1861-1865. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Oct 2004. <>