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19th century photography
Three officers of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, the Army of the James, at Fort Brady, Virginia, 1864

Those beautifully vivid 19th century photos–the imagery so sharp you feel as if you can touch the fabric, the buttons, the hair–required people to remain really still for several seconds. The slightest movement would soften the image.

Henry Washington Sawyer
Major H. W. Sawyer and Staff at Camp Stoneman, District of Columbia, March 1865. The standing men lay their hands on a supportive shoulder.

19th century photography studios stocked props, literally, to steady their subjects. Outside the studio, photographers enlisted anything from tent poles, as in a portrait of Grant, to trees, as in the photo of the pensive officers.

The dismal, corpse-littered aftermath of battle was all the photographers had to take: men fighting just won’t stop and pose. Children and animals are much the same.

Okay, we knew all that. But it took me a while to put that fact to work solving something I’d wondered about: why are people in old group photos often touching each other? Answer: To steady themselves for the sharpest picture possible.

Ballard House Exchange Hotel
Stereograph of Ballard House / Exchange Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, April 1865. Click picture to magnify and check out the “ghosts.”

The long exposures can make streetscapes in photos look deserted. Animals and people in motion are “erased.” Sometimes, though, you can spot their ghosts. See the “ghost” men on the corner, facing the two men on horses?


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Explore the fascinating roots of Whitman’s great work, Leaves of Grass: a family harrowed by alcoholism and mental illness; the bloody Civil War; burgeoning, brawling Manhattan and Brooklyn; literary allies and rivals; and his beloved America, racked by disunion even while racing westward. Over 300 color period images immerse the reader in the life and times of Walt Whitman.

Sawyer & Soldier reading photo via / Ballard House photo via Library of Congress / For an interesting story about Major Henry W. Sawyer, read this.

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