Online Exhibits@Yale

Death and the Portrait Photograph

John H. Crawford, 2nd Lieutenant, Co. B

Facing the total obliteration of their corporeal forms and the erasure of their identities, soldiers took it upon themselves to ensure the persistence of their memory through portrait photographs. 

John H. Crawford, 2nd Lieutenant, Co. B

The cheap, highly accessible portraits for which soldiers sat channeled the men’s cognizance of their own mortality, and ultimately served as metaphysical tokens that helped soldiers transcend painful and impersonal deaths.  

Facing the total obliteration of their corporeal forms and the erasure of their identities, soldiers took it upon themselves to ensure the persistence of their memory through portrait photographs. The cheap, highly accessible portraits for which soldiers sat channeled the men’s cognizance of their own mortality, and ultimately served as metaphysical tokens that helped soldiers transcend painful and impersonal deaths. At their core, photographs easily and personally promised soldiers the preservation of their bodies and enshrined the memory of their being for posterity. As such, photography most aptly preserved and memorialized the soldier’s body because photographs simultaneously suggest existence and mortality through their realism.

The photographs also conjured the ghosts of soldiers who were dead and far from home. Celebrated jurist and Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., illustrated the popular amazement at the photograph’s magical ability to invoke and preserve the dead in his essay “The Doings of the Sunbeam.” He described the development of photos as deeds of darkness in which, “invisible ghosts, trooping down from the world of day, cross a Styx of dissolved sulphate of iron, and appear before the Rhadamanthus of that lurid Hades.” The Hellenic allusions likened the photographer to the necromancer, suggesting that photographs defied natural law by reuniting a dead soldier with his beloved friends and family.

Soldiers eagerly sent home to their families their portraits, finding comfort in the fact that their families would care for their images and memories. Soldiers even wrote on the backs of their portraits, leaving notes that identified their images by name, as well as emphasized that their photos be broadly viewed. In Levi Graybill’s regiment, the 22nd United States Colored Infantry, soldiers further tailored their portraits with elegant sign-offs in loopy scripts on the reverse of the images. John Crawford, a steely eyed man with dark hair wrote “Yours truly,” and penned his signature on the back of his carte-de-visite, while Albert James scratched “Regards of Albert James” on his. By signing off their portraits, soldiers like Crawford and James combined the power of naming with the alchemy of photography, and subsequently enhanced the capacity to self-memorialize provided by the portraits. The send-offs also signaled that the soldiers meant for their families and friends to circulate their photographs, meaning that memorialization depended on the reverence and protection provided by family and friends. Graybill’s comrade J. B. Cook demanded that his portrait be shared, protected, and preserved by tenderly inscribing “Show Mom” on the back of his picture. With his body in constant danger so far from home, Cook found some relief in the fact that his portrait could at once save his likeness and memory while in the hands of his mother.

By inscribing their names and including written send-offs on their pictures, the soldiers enhanced the personalization afforded by their photographs, and requested that their images be consumed publically. The men recognized that the birth of photography resulted in an intersection between the public and the private, creating, what Alan Trachtenberg calls, “a new social value” in which “the private is consumed...as publically.” After the soldiers’ deaths during the war, the men’s photographs would occupy a public position as objects of ceremony and ritual during the process of grieving.

Death and the Portrait Photograph