Lawrence, residents, Kansans join in Civil War re-enactment
A group of Civil War re-enactors with the 3rd Kansas, Battery B, light artillery unit, including some from Lawrence, participated in the Wilson's Creek 150th Anniversary Re-enactment. The event was held August 12-14, near Springfield, Mo.
I was walking through the Union army camp, carrying my tripod and camera, when a soldier yelled out “Matthew Brady, aren’t you the guy who moved the dead soldier to set up a photograph?” My response was quick. “No, sir that was Alexander Gardner, not I.” The line got me a laugh, but maybe you had to be there or be knowledgeable of Civil War photography to get the joke. I was embedded with the 3rd Kansas, Battery B, light artillery unit to do a story on local Civil War re-enactors. We were participating at the Wilson’s Creek 150th Anniversary Reenactment near Springfield, MO. To blend into the scene and not look “farby” — a Civil War reenactment term for anything not typical of the period, I had dressed in clothes I hoped were historically accurate.
A black cardboard box and cloth hid my modern cameras, mounted on a tripod. I wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, vest, boots and linen pants. The soldiers’ inquiry was at least acknowledgement that I passed muster on looks. I had in fact, intended to portray civilian and Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Dressing the part was easy. Carrying the tripod and working under a black cloth, inside a cramped cardboard box, in 90-degree heat, looked nice but hindered my photography. By the second day of the reenactment I shed the cloth and box. Go ahead, call me farby.
One of the difficulties Matthew Brady would have faced photographing the Civil War were exposures of 10-30 seconds or more. Emulsions and film sensitivities were limited and a lot of light was required for correct exposures. That was Brady’s excuse for a tripod. He needed it to keep his camera steady for long exposures. It’s also why there are few action shots from the Civil War. Even after I ditched my fake, large-format camera box, I still required the tripod. But not for the same reasons as Brady. Most of our visual documentation at the Journal-World now includes high-definition video in addition to still photography. A tripod keeps video content rock steady. Otherwise it can get a little like footage from the Blair Witch Project movie or like something shot from the deck of a boat in stormy seas. So for re-enactment battles, I used two cameras, one on a tripod, usually with a telephoto lens and mostly for video, and one hung over my shoulder with a wide-angle lens for stills. Framing on various scenes in front of me I would switch back and forth between the two cameras, video and still, attempting to catch the moments action.
The Union soldiers reference to a posed photograph refers to a longtime assumption that Alex Gardner, a Civil War photographer who worked for Brady, had once moved the body of a dead soldier to create a more dramatic image. Since my intent was to dress like Brady, not Gardner, the soldiers remark was an obvious case of mistaken identity. I can tell you with all honesty, that no horse or soldier was either moved nor harmed in the making of my photographs.