NEW YORK — You enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s poignant exhibition “Photography and the American Civil War” through a white military field tent.
In the distance is a mural-size panoramic picture featuring the pre-eminent photographer Mathew Brady gazing at the Gettysburg battlefield. Surprisingly, it is an idyllic summer landscape. Brady arrived too late, after the wheat fields had been cleared of the dead.
This first gallery’s moment of pause helps to steel your senses for the onslaught to come. Established at the outset, the plaintive mood never lifts throughout the show.
About 1,000 photographers covered all aspects of the Civil War, except the battles – their equipment was too rudimentary to capture movement.
They shot ruins, soldiers’ portraits, generals, politicians, emancipated slaves, burial parties and battlefields strewn with bodies.
We see memorabilia and paraphernalia, including cameras, campaign medals and a wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth. Candid sequential photographs show the hanging of the Lincoln assassination’s co-conspirators.
There are nerve-testing images of bombed-out buildings and contorted, bloated bodies arching toward the sky (horses were not spared), as well as close-up medical photographs of gunshot wounds and pictures of field surgeons performing amputations.
One of the startling revelations is that at least some of these photographs were staged for an eager public. One unknown casualty appears in two different pictures – as a dead Union infantryman and as a “Rebel Sharpshooter,” each with the same prop rifle the photographers carried with them.
Stepping into this enlightening, elegiac show is like entering a chapel. You take a deep breath and go inside – as much to pay your respects to the 750,000 fallen as to experience works of art.