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Throwback Thursday: Photography and the American Civil War

Editor's Note: For Throwback Thursday, we are rerunning Sharon Litwin's article about the American Civil War photography exhibit at NOMA on display until May 4th.

To hear Sharon Litwin interview Jeff Rosenheim on WWNO radio, click here.

Jeff Rosenheim took his Master of Fine Art degree from Tulane University, along with his professional experiences at the Louisiana State Museum and Historic New Orleans Collection, and went on up to New York. His knowledge of the history of photography and his experiences at both New Orleans museums gained him entry to the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now he is the curator in charge of the Department of Photography. Rosenheim returned recently to New Orleans to be present at the opening of Photography and the American Civil War, the critically acclaimed exhibition he curated for the Met, on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art until May 4.

Rosenheim says that, of the many important exhibitions he has organized, this is the one that has most affected him personally.  

“This show more than any I have ever done packs an emotional punch,” he says. “I don’t think anyone is going to forget seeing these wounded soldiers. They look to the camera in a very different way than the soldiers with their weapons.”

Sojourner Truth (Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Finding the more than 200 objects to exhibit was a long journey. All in all, it took Rosenheim 10 years to pull together the exhibition. It is an amazing collection, not only because it represents the most visible record of early America’s most devastating period, but also because photography itself was but 20 years old.

“They didn’t know what a photograph was,” Rosenheim continues, referring to the soldiers from both North and South. “The medium was just beginning. It had been practiced primarily in cities. But these portraits are what really tell the story of the war.”

Rosenheim believes that many soldiers felt that photographs had an almost talismanic quality, which is why so many of them, fearing death on the battlefield, had their pictures taken by the itinerant photographers who followed the armies. That photograph, they theorized, would likely be the only thing families would remember them by.

Of all the photographs in the exhibition, Rosenheim says there is one whose image always haunts him.

“There’s this great portrait of Sojourner Truth, who was born in New York State, a slave,” he says. “She poses there sitting, knitting. She traveled around the country advocating the anti-slavery cause. She copyrighted the photograph that is in the show in her own name in 1864. And she puts on it this phrase that totally destroys me: ‘I sell the shadow to support the substance.’”

Selling her image (the shadow), Rosenheim says, was the way Sojourner Truth, who could neither read nor write, could support the abolitionist cause. Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, Sojourner Truth changed her name after a religious epiphany, and in 1862 walked away to freedom.

Nearly three quarters of a million lives were lost in the American Civil War, a conflict that began on April 12, 1861, and ended four years later, almost to the day. Remnants of that conflict still haunt this country almost 150 years later.

So what does Rosenheim want viewers to take away from this unique and powerful museum experience? He wants them to think “how different are we from this moment; how far away are we from this struggle?"

“This is a very dense show filled with great visual impact,” he says. “It’s demanding. You have to get close to it. I hope that everybody feels that we are part of this story.”

Photography and the American Civil War is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Major support for the New Orleans presentation is provided by Kitty and Stephen Sherrill and J.P Morgan. Additional support is provided by Melanee and Steven Usdin.

Ticket prices are $15 for adults; $13 for seniors and active military; and $6 for children. NOMA members are free. For more information, call 504-658-4100 or visit www.noma.org.

Below is a preview of some of the photos that will be featured in the exhibit.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]