Photography as History

Photography teacher Susan Moffat and Dr. Andy Hamilton took their eighth-grade students to the Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth this week to visit the graves of American Civil War soldiers as part of an Arts-Across-the Curriculum study of early American photojournalism in Hamilton’s U.S. history class. The group was toured around the historic site by Ashley Waddington, superintendent of the cemetery.

Moffat introduced the students to the work of Mathew Brady, credited to be the first American war photographer for his groundbreaking documentation of the country’s greatest conflict. He and his associates used newly emerging technology that revolutionized scenic and documentary photography, enabling a single negative to produce multiple printed copies for distribution. Brady chronicled the sociology of the war, covering not only the battlefields, encampments, and field hospitals, but also the impact of the war on the townsfolk and townships. For the first time, the public could see the ravages of war rather than just read about them. 

The National Archives and Records Administration has on view over 6,000 digitized images of the war. Ironically, what is missing from the collection are battle scenes due to technical limitations which demanded that the subject matter be still because of slow shutter speeds. 

Prior to the trip, each student was assigned a soldier to research as part of their larger unit studying the American Civil War. “I’ve instructed them to photograph the gravestones, keeping in mind the look and feel of the photography of the time,” said Moffat. She went on to explain that once the photos are done, the students will move into the digital photo lab to transform their images into thematic posters reflective of the time with information about the veterans. The posters will hang in the Simon Center gallery later this month.
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