Biography | Bibliography
Alexander Gardner was an American photographer. He is best known for his photographs of the American Civil War and his portraits of American President Abraham Lincoln.
Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1821. He became an apprentice silversmith jeweler at the age of fourteen. Gardner had a Calvinist upbringing and was influenced by the work of Robert Owen, Welsh socialist and father of the cooperative movement. By adulthood he desired to create a cooperative in the United States that would incorporate socialist values. In 1850, Gardner and others purchased land near Monona, Iowa, for this purpose, but Gardner never lived there, choosing to return to Scotland to raise more money. He stayed there until 1856, becoming owner and editor of the Glasgow Sentinel in 1851. Visiting The Great Exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park, London, he saw the photography of American Mathew Brady, and thus began his interest in the subject.
Alexander Gardner and his family moved to the United States in 1856. Finding that many friends and family members at the cooperative he had helped to form were dead or dying of tuberculosis, he stayed in New York. He initiated contact with Brady and came to work for him, eventually managing Brady’s Washington, D.C., gallery.
Unfortunately, the most famous of Alexander Gardner’s work has been proven to be a fake. In 1961, Frederic Ray of the Civil War Times magazine compared several of Gardner’s photos showing “two” dead Confederate snipers and realized that the same body has been photographed in multiple locations. Apparently, Alexander Gardner was not satisfied with the subject matter as it was presented to him and dragged the body around to create his own version of reality. Ray’s analysis was expanded on by the author William Frassanito in 1975.
Abraham Lincoln became an American President in the November, 1860 election, and along with his appointment came the threat of war. Alexander Gardner, being in Washington, was well-positioned for these events, and his popularity rose as a portrait photographer, capturing the visages of soldiers leaving for war.
Brady had had the idea to photograph the Civil War. Gardner’s relationship with Allan Pinkerton (who was head of an intelligence operation that would become the Secret Service) was the key to communicating Brady’s ideas to Lincoln. Pinkerton recommended Alexander Gardner for the position of chief photographer under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Topographical Engineers. Following that short appointment, Alexander Gardner became a staff photographer under General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. At this point, Alexander Gardner’s management of Brady’s gallery ended. The honorary rank of captain was bestowed upon Alexander Gardner, and he photographed the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, developing photos in his traveling darkroom.
Alexander Gardner worked for the photographer Mathew Brady from 1856 to 1862. According to a New York Times review, Alexander Gardner has often had his work misattributed to Brady, and despite his considerable output, historians have tended to give Gardner less than full recognition for his documentation of the Civil War.
Lincoln dismissed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, and Alexander Gardner’s role as chief army photographer diminished. About this time, Alexander Gardner ended his working relationship with Brady, probably in part because of Brady’s practice of attributing his employees’ work as “Photographed by Brady”. That winter, Alexander Gardner followed General Ambrose Burnside, photographing the Battle of Fredericksburg. Next, he followed General Joseph Hooker. In May 1863, Gardner and his brother James opened their own studio in Washington, D.C, hiring many of Brady’s former staff. Alexander Gardner photographed the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863) and the Siege of Petersburg (June 1864–April 1865) during this time.
He published a two-volume work: Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War in 1866. Each volume contained 50 hand-mounted original prints. Not all photographs were Alexander Gardner’s; he credited the negative producer and the positive print printer. As the employer, Alexander Gardner owned the work produced, like any modern day studio. The sketchbook contained work by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, James F. Gibson, John Reekie, William R. Pywell, James Gardner (his brother), John Wood, George N. Barnard, David Knox and David Woodbury among others. A century later, photographic analysis suggested that Alexander Gardner had manipulated the setting of at least one of his Civil War photos by moving a soldier’s corpse and weapon into more dramatic positions.
Among his photographs of Abraham Lincoln were the last to be taken of the President, four days before his assassination. He also documented Lincoln’s funeral, and photographed the conspirators involved (with John Wilkes Booth) in Lincoln’s assassination. Alexander Gardner was the only photographer allowed at their execution by hanging, photographs of which would later be translated into woodcuts for publication in Harper’s Weekly.
Gardner was commissioned to photograph Native Americans who came to Washington to discuss treaties; and he surveyed the proposed route of the Kansas Pacific railroad to the Pacific Ocean. Many of his photos were stereoscopic. After 1871, Gardner gave up photography and helped to found an insurance company. Alexander Gardner stayed in Washington until his death. When asked about his work, he said, “It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest.”
Keith Davis, Jane Aspinwall, Marc Wilson, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Origins of American Photography From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007.
Gardner, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1959.
Brooks Johnson, Susan Danly, An Enduring Interest: The Photographs of Alexander Gardner, Norfolk, VA: The Chrysler Museum, 1991.
D. Mark Katz, Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner, New York: Viking Press, 1991.
Bob Zeller, William A. Frassanito, Catalogue of Photographic Incidents of the War From the Gallery of Alexander Gardner, Photographer to the Army of the Potomac, Corner of 7th and D Streets, Washington D.C., Tampa, FL: Center for Civil War Photography, 2003.