Henningsen: A Fine View

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(HOST) Watching coverage of the fighting in Libya led historian and commentator Vic Henningsen to consider the impact of visual images on our perception of warfare and brought him to the work of a little-known Vermont photographer.

(HENNINGSEN)  We’re saturated with images of war.  The 24/7 news cycle, the Internet, and the ability to send photos from smartphones all guarantee a constant bombardment of pictures of conflict, wherever it may occur – Libya, Afghanistan, you name it.  We forget that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to Life Magazine and the newsreels that brought World War II home to the American public.  Cellphone photojournalism is barely five years old.

During the Civil War, Americans derived most of their visual understanding of the conflict from the work of artists like Winslow Homer, whose quick studies of men in action appeared in Harper’s Weekly and other popular magazines.   There were fewer than 4000 professional photographers in the U.S. and only a fraction followed the armies.

One who did was George Houghton of Brattleboro, a collection of whose work has just been published by the Vermont Historical Society.  Edited by Rutland historian Donald Wickman, A Very Fine Appearance documents the experience of Vermont regiments Houghton followed between 1861 and 1863.

Houghton was popular with his subjects, who called his work "a fine view of soldiering."   To us this may be confusing, for there are no battle scenes and few of the aftermath of battle.   Certainly there’s nothing like the grim pictures of the Antietam dead taken by Matthew Brady’s assistant Alexander Gardner that caused consternation when first exhibited.  With the exception of a rare picture of a slave family – one of the few made at this time – Houghton’s subjects seem mundane.  Along with many carefully posed groups, he pictured encampments; a company band or a regiment in formation; wagon trains; earthworks; field guns; soldiers at work.  He recorded the ordinary, the day-to-dayness of soldiers lives.

But that was soldiering.  The majority of military life was the tedium of camp and drill.   Houghton’s photographs reflect that reality – that’s what made them popular.   He let people at home see what their fathers, brothers, and sons were doing and writing about every day.

Now we too can see it and those who lived it.  They’re dressed in rumpled, slept-in clothing; their hair is lank, sweat-dampened in the humid Virginia summer; they shoulder axes and spades as often as muskets.  Posing required holding still for thirty seconds, but many of Houghton’s soldiers seem to glance at the photographer for only a moment.   

Colonel George Stannard, who would become a national hero at Gettysburg, glares off-camera, apparently ready to spring from his chair to sort out something – or someone.  Perched uncomfortably on a rocky outcropping, the band of the 4th Vermont – all from Bennington – gaze longingly to their right, anticipating mail call, or lunch.  A burial detail pauses briefly in its grim task.

"The real war," said Walt Whitman, "will never get into the books."   And it’s true that the cumbersome nature of glass-plate photography prevented any combat footage.  But George Houghton successfully captured, at the time, the daily reality of Vermonters at war.

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