By ALICIA NOTARIANNI
6:08 PM EDT, October 6, 2012
During October 150 years ago, people lined the street outside a New York gallery to see something the likes of which they had never seen before.
Inside were images of corpses captured just moments after battle hundreds of miles away at a place called Antietam. Photographer Alexander Gardner had shot the merciless photos about a month earlier for gallery owner Matthew Brady.
Reproductions of those portraits are among the artifacts anchoring the exhibit “Bringing the Story of War to Our Doorsteps,” which opened Saturday at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at Antietam National Battlefield.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Henry Allen spoke at the event. About 25 visitors packed a small room to hear him speak, and others streamed in steadily before and following the lecture.
Allen addressed the public’s callous fascination with such chilling, grisly pictures, both 150 years ago and now, by referencing the World War II novel “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. He spoke of “Snowden’s secret,” explaining that Snowden was a character in the novel who suffered a hideous death. The book offers an existential view that “man is matter” doomed to be buried and rot.
“Are we all depressed enough yet? There will be psychiatric counseling after the talk,” Allen joked.
Allen said humans spend their lives trying to dodge death and believe in an afterlife.
“We look at these bloated, bloody bodies, but we don’t see. Lord knows we may not want to,” he said. “We build cemeteries like gardens and memorialize bravery, loyalty, sacrifice — all great virtues — because we must give meaning to life. A meaning that is utterly absent from these pictures.”
Exhibit director Robert Kozak of the Frederick County Civil War Roundtable said he has dreamed of establishing such a display since he first came across the images years ago as a college student and Civil War buff.
“When I first saw them, I just said, ‘Wow.’ They are just almost revolting,” he said.
Kozak figured the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam would be his “one shot” to get funding to see the exhibit through. He secured a grant from the Maryland Heritage Authority.
The exhibit title, “Bringing the Story of the War to Our Doorsteps,” is a play on a statement from an October 1862 New York Times piece. In it, the writer states that gallery owner Brady opened to viewers the depths of the horror of war. Copies of the editorial were available at the Pry House.
“If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it,” the piece says.
Reproduction photos provided by the Library of Congress line one room of the exhibit. A glass case contains original direct contact prints owned by Bob Zeller, president of The Center for Civil War Photography and a chief adviser for the exhibit.
Among the prints are stereoviews, or pictures taken by a two-lens camera, and a wooden, hand-held viewer that causes the images to appear in 3-D. Stereoviews had just become popular in home entertainment several years before the war, Zeller said.
People who had viewed landmarks such as Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks began collecting Gardner’s horrific mass-marketed images instead. Also on display is a large monitor, 3-D slideshow of Gardner’s images.
Zeller said a common myth persists that Gardner posed bodies of the dead to create more poignant images. While there is agreement among most historians that one body was moved in one photo shot at Gettysburg, and that props such as rifles and canteens were added in a few instances, Zeller is adamant that the depictions are untainted.
“There is no evidence that any of these bodies were touched,” he said.
“Bringing the Story of War to Our Doorsteps” will be at the Pry House at least until Dec. 1, Kozak said.
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