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 Canon DSLR camera, mounted on a contemporary aluminum tripod. I wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, boots, linen pants, and wool vest and longcoat. 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 the part but hindered my photography. By the second day of the reenactment I shed the cloth and box. Go ahead, call me farby...a derogatory term used among Civil War reenactors to indicate clothing, equipment, etc. that is inauthentic, because it didn't exist in the 1860's
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.