When you grow up in Oregon, as I did, the Civil War is just another date to memorize for history tests. I was functionally illiterate in “The War Between The States” when I moved to South Carolina in 1989 – stunned at the degree of relevance it still seemed to have in my adopted home town. This was before Ken Burn’s series on PBS and all I knew of the war I knew through photographs. The faded, sepia-toned images of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner fixed my understanding of it as a distant madness.
Civil War Era Photography is the subject of a talk tonight at the Beaufort County Library’s Special Collections room – a place near and dear to my memoirist heart. Dr. Robert Lisle will explain the tools some 300 male photographers used to create the images that captured that distant madness. It’s part of the library’s month-long commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial called “One County Reads The Civil War.” Lots of libraries use history to lure in readers – but no other library has a Grace Cordial leading the charge. I counted nearly 40 programs, lectures, readings, showings and tours listed in the library’s brochure – and that’s only the adult section of events.
I plan on going to several, starting with the photography talk tonight. Images capture history in a way that never feels archaic or wordy. The power of photographs to change public perception of war is undeniable – who can forget images like this?
But for me, the photographs of one photographer in particular, go deeper than documentation. They explain why the war mattered. In my PBS documentary “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” I used the archival photographs of Henry P. Moore extensively. He traveled to visit the Third New Hampshire Regiment camped in South Carolina in 1862 and 1863. But when the day’s work of documenting soldiers was done, he turned to the plantations of St. Helena, Beaufort and Edisto Island.
I’d seen the shocking photos of the backs of slaves, criss-crossed with the slashings of whips. What Moore’s photographs showed me was the Gullah strength of character, the grinding everydayness of survival, the power of faith and promises when there is nothing else. In the end, photography isn’t about tools and equipment – it is about having something to say.