Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Alexander Gardner - Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War

by Keith Steiner (Troubador Books)

A Review by Kenny Taylor

It can seem strange when a notable figure from the not-so-distant past is largely overlooked in the present. But it’s often surprising when some old leaves are turned over to bring such a person back to light.

That’s how it is with Keith Steiner’s efforts to highlight the work of Alexander Gardner. Born in Paisley in 1821, Gardner took up photography in his early thirties. After emigrating to America soon after, he worked with Mathew Brady – one of the very earliest American photographers – helping him portraiture and also running a gallery in Washington DC.

It’s here that the story gets intriguing. Gardener became a staff photographer for the Union army during the American Civil War of the 1860s, recording the aftermath of many infamously bloody conflicts. He photographed Abraham Lincoln several times in this period and also the conspirators convicted of Lincoln’s assassination, being the only photographer allowed at their execution.

Steiner’s book shows how Gardner honed a style of war reportage where images come from close to the heart of conflict. Its pages make uncomfortable viewing, but should help to restore the contemporary reputation of a pioneering Scottish photographer.