Considering the Civil War Through the Lens of Photography

In late December, Photography teacher Susan Moffat taught an Immersion Program module on the photography of the Civil War to Anka Martula’s “Introduction to US History” middle-school class. This was the students’  first introduction to the Civil War, which Martula planned to dig into after the winter break. 

Moffat set the stage for the students by discussing the important role that photojournalism played in covering the Civil War, which many historians consider the defining event in U.S. history. As the young country expanded westward, discussion and diplomacy about the rights of individual states versus the power of the federal government collapsed over the issue of slavery, resulting in civil war. Moffat discussed the reasons for the war, slavery, and systemic racism as the background to the photography project. “Learning about the Civil War reminds us that we still have a long way to go,” said Moffat.

Photography was a young medium in the mid-19th century. Matthew Brady, credited to be the first US war photographer, and his associates photographed the sociology of the Civil War, covering not only the battlefields and encampments but the impact of the war on the townsfolk and townships. For the first time, the masses could see the ravages of war rather than just read news bulletins in the local press. The National Archives and Records Administration has on view over 6,000 digitized images from the Civil War. Ironically, what was missing from the photo catalogs were battle scenes. Early technology demanded that the subject matter be still; photographs, therefore, had to be staged because shutter speeds were slow. 

Moffat taught the students about shutter speeds and, using techniques like those employed by Brady and company, how to slow exposure to create ghost-like effects. The class brought cameras, iPhones, and tripods to the Falmouth Old Burying Ground and searched for gravestones from that time period that would serve as subjects for their photoshoot. Students were then taught how to edit the resulting images in Adobe Spark and tasked with creating thematic posters. Moffat curated the students’ work into an art exhibit that now hangs in the Simon Center Gallery. “She did such a great job laying down a foundation of understanding about the Civil War through the lens of photography,” said Martula. “I was so impressed by the sophistication of the student artwork and the meaning behind it.”
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