Alexander Gardner Eyewitness To History  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 Alexander Gardner photographed some of the key locations involved in the tragedy.  Right away he photographed Ford’s Theater where it happened and the swags of black mourning muslin covering the building.  Then he moved inside and photographed the interior including the Presidential box where Lincoln was shot.

The very things which an artist would leave out, or render imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

He captured intricate details in his photos like the tear in the flag that John Wilkes Booth caused when his spur caught the flag as he jumped from Lincoln’s box.  He photographed the stables where the assassin kept his horse and the telegraph office from which the world learned of the tragedy.  

He went to the location of Booth’s escape across the Navy Yard Bridge and took photos.  Gardner also provided copies of pictures of the murder suspects and was in the room during Booth’s autopsy. 

He photographed the body.  The image mysteriously disappeared afterword.    

Gardner and his assistant Timothy O’Sullivan were the only photographers present for the hangings of Lincoln’s conspirators.  They set up their camera on a roof overlooking the gallows.  Gardner was also there as departing spectators dined on the lemonade and cakes they were served.   

In those moments Gardner knew he was an eyewitness to history and understood the importance of documenting the tragedy.  His photos are some of the most vivid shots taken of the assassination and the aftermath. 

The two photojournalists missed little.  

His images appear to be the first photographic picture story of an event as it unfolded.  They demonstrated the revolutionary role the camera was about to play in future news reporting.  

“The very things which an artist would leave out, or render imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes.

That’s what Gardner did in his Lincoln photos.  Over 140 years later the spectator gets the same bird’s-eye-view of the tragedy unfolding as the photographer did.  

Gardner was a Scottish journalist who came to America in 1856.  He joined the staff of photographer Mathew Brady and ultimately managed his Washington studio.  He specialized in making large images called Imperial photographs. 

As Brady’s eyesight failed, Gardner assumed more responsibility.  He is said to have made three-quarters of the campaign pictures of the Army of the Potomac.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861 there was a big demand for portrait photography.  Soldiers headed to the front posed for Gardner’s camera so they could leave behind images for their loved ones. 

He was also the first Brady photographer to take photos of the dead in the battlefield.  His images brought the people at home face-to-face with the Civil War.  

Gardner opened his own gallery in Washington in 1863.  He was appointed the official photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad and documented the building of the railroad in Kansas as well as the Native American tribes he met.

On Dec 10, Cowan’s Auctions offered a selection of vintage Gardner photos in its American History Including the Civil War auction.

Alexander Gardner

Civil War photo; meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac at Harper’s Ferry; 1866 copyright; 7 inches by 9 inches;  $1,528.

Captain William W. Beckwith and Genl. Patrick’s Horse; 2 photos; both 6 ¾ inches by 8 ¾ inches;  $2,350.

Stereoviews; Union Operations at City Point, Belle Plain and Bermuda Hundred; 11 stereoviews; circa 1864-65;  $2,468. 

Stereoviews; of Gen. Grant and his staff; 4 stereoviews; 1863 copyright; includes three photos of Grant’s Council of War; 1864;  $3,408. 

Photo; probably taken from his Washington studio rooftop; previously unknown and unpublished; pictures storefronts of his neighbors; circa 1866; 18 ½ inches by 13 inches;  $35,250.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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