Before the invention of photography, people only saw images through oil paintings or tranquil parlor drawings. Once the medium was introduced, the visual landscape of America was forever changed.
One of the first modern photographers was the Scottish-born Alexander Gardner, who immigrated to the United States in the late 1850s. Turning his camera toward the battlefields of the Civil War, the landscapes of the west and the struggles of Native Americans, Gardner helped bring real images to people throughout the country.
To celebrate his collection of work, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., will be hosting a new exhibition. Around 150 photographs will be on display, including the iconic 1865 "cracked-plate" portrait of then-president Abraham Lincoln.
Photographer Alexander Gardner captured this image of President Abraham Lincoln, known as the "cracked-plate" portrait — Photo courtesy of Smithsonian
Senior historian and curator David C. Ward says the new exhibit – Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs 1859-1872 – took between 18 months to two years to put together, with many images coming from public repositories from across the country.
"We had widespread and very gratifying cooperation," Ward says. "These pictures have been widely known, and we are bringing them all together."
The exhibit has a particular significance for Ward, who has always been intensely fascinated in history of the mid-19th century.
"I am interested in the way in which the Civil War and everything associated with it changed America," Ward says. "I mean, this is the period in which America really becomes a modern nation throughout the process of war and territorial expansion. The Civil War was the starting point, for me. Gardner is the man who shot the war."
And as such, you can imagine how crucial he was to 19th-century photography overall. The exhibit includes a wide range of his works, including military pictures and portraits of political figures.
"We think of Mathew Brady as the most famous photographer, which he was. But Gardner worked for Brady and then splits off from him in 1862 and creates his own career and these really incredible documentary images," Ward says.
The first part of the exhibit highlights Gardner's Civil War photographs, with images from the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg and his friendship with Lincoln.
"Gardner was Lincoln's favorite photographer," Ward says. "Lincoln was Gardner's first customer when he set up his Washington studio in 1863. There is the simple element that politicians and ordinary Americans were taking advantage of this new medium – photography – to create and disseminate likenesses."
As patrons move through the exhibit, the second half encompasses Gardner's images of the landscapes of the American West and portraits of Native Americans.
"A lot of the images in this exhibition like the 'cracked-plate' are one of a kind," says Ward. "It's the story of America in a way in which, I think, is very moving."
Ward hopes visitors take away an appreciation of Gardner and an understanding of the importance of these images from the nation's past.
Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs 1859-1872 begins Sept. 18, 2015, and runs until March 13, 2016, at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.