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Major Civil War photographs exhibition opens at the Huntington in San Marino
Timothy H. O'Sullivan (ca. 1840-1882), photographer; printed by Alexander Gardner, A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 4, 1863; Albumen print; 7 x 9 in. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

SAN MARINO, CA.- Some of the deepest, most wrenching complexities of the American Civil War are examined in a pair of exhibitions that bring to light rare photographs and manuscripts at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The exhibition of photographs—“A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War” runs from Oct. 13, 2012, through Jan. 14, 2013, in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. It is complemented by a companion exhibition, “A Just Cause: Voices of the American Civil War,” on view Sept. 22, 2012, through Jan. 7, 2013, in the West Hall of the Library.

“When we began thinking about how The Huntington might weigh in on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we knew that an exhibition of photographs was indisputably the way to go,” said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library. “This is the first time The Huntington has mounted an exhibition centered solely on its Civil War imagery, some of which is very rare and little known. At the same time, we knew that also bringing out some of our manuscript material could provide important narrative context. What was this war about that took the lives of three quarters of a million people? We think of it as a given; in fact it is a question that has been fiercely argued about over time.”

“A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War”
The Huntington’s Civil War archives—begun when Henry E. Huntington purchased two of the “Big Five” collections of Abraham Lincoln materials early in the 20th century—supply more than 200 works by famed war photographers Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Andrew J. Russell, among others, for “A Strange and Fearful Interest.”

“I have looked at these photographs for years, but I am still struck by how extraordinary this collection is, how absolutely compelling and haunting,” said Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington and curator of “A Strange and Fearful Interest.” “I knew it was finally time we put together an exhibition based solely on the collection.”

“The anniversary of the war,” she said, “provided the perfect opportunity to think about the war’s visual record and how it might be presented to the visiting public. The result has been an exhibition that explores how photographic images explained, reflected, and shaped the nation’s coming to terms with the unprecedented death toll of the Civil War, focusing on key episodes to highlight larger cultural issues.”

Exhibition focal points include the battlefront, particularly the Battle of Antietam—the bloodiest and costliest single day of combat in American history; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the nationwide mourning that ensued, and the subsequent execution of the conspirators; and the establishment of Gettysburg National Monument as a site of reconciliation and remembrance.

The exhibition takes its title from a statement made by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1863 responding to the imagery of Antietam—“The field of photography is extending itself to embrace subjects of strange and sometimes of fearful interest.” The war coincided with the rise of photographic and printing technologies that enabled the wide dissemination of imagery to a rapt audience, said Watts.

Recent estimates put the number of Civil War dead at as many as 750,000 Americans, more than all other major conflicts from the Revolutionary War through the present. Said Watts: “It was after I read historian Drew Gilpin Faust’s powerful book, This Republic of Suffering, that I realized the profound impact of the carnage.”

Faust writes, “Soldiers tried to make sense of what they had wrought. As they surveyed the scene at battle’s end, they became different men.” The same could be said for the nation at large as it grappled with death on such a monumental scale, said Watts. “The exhibition examines how the nation ‘became different’ as a result of this conflagration and how it attempted to make sense of it all.”

In “A Strange and Fearful Interest,” visitors encounter original works in a contemporary installation designed to provoke serious looking and reflection. Organized around three primary themes—Battlefront, Assassination, and Commemoration—items are displayed to privilege aesthetic and intellectual connections over strict chronological ones. Two computer kiosks offer visitors the opportunity to view 50 works at a level of detail impossible to perceive with the naked eye.

The gallery dedicated to the imagery of battlefield dead that proliferated during and after the war is envisioned as a minimal, contemplative space. It contains Alexander Gardner’s famous Antietam series of battlefield carnage, scrapbook pages recording death by a famous Civil War illustrator, and several original stereographic cards installed in vintage viewers.

The space also contains contemporary artist Steve Roden’s response to this particular genre of imagery through a sound work using battlefield photographs as a point of departure.

Key objects in “A Strange and Fearful Interest” include Alexander Gardner’s views of battlefield dead at Antietam; rare photographs from Andrew J. Russell’s U.S. Military Railroad Album, including haunting scenes of battlefield devastation and newly established military cemeteries; George Barnard’s incomparable album Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (1866); a rare “Wanted” Poster from the Lincoln assassination; mementos of grief such as a Lincoln mourning ribbon and keepsakes; lithographs of Lincoln deathbed scenes as well as photographs of the large public displays of mourning associated with the funeral; a set of photographs by Alexander Gardner depicting the execution of the Lincoln conspirators; John P. Nicholson albums and images related to the establishment of Gettysburg National Monument; and the scrapbooks of Civil War veteran and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News illustrator James E. Taylor, which include exceptionally rare battlefield, contraband, and convalescent images.

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