Trachtenberg personalizes past with photos

An antiquated photo of a nineteenth-century American soldier clad in gray has the power to breathe new life into a long-gone era by personalizing the past, Civil War photography scholar Alan Trachtenberg said in a workshop at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Tuesday.

Trachtenberg, professor emeritus of English and American studies, explored the very nature of historical photographs, which he said exist as relics that shed light on the past. During the workshop, which was attended by 25 students and professors, he discussed and read aloud from his paper “Civil War Photographs as History,” which he presented earlier this month at a Civil War commemorative event at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Photography scholar Alan Trachtenberg discussed Civil War photos, including “The Field Darkroom,” at a talk Tuesday.
Photography scholar Alan Trachtenberg discussed Civil War photos, including “The Field Darkroom,” at a talk Tuesday.

Trachtenberg’s paper and workshop were based on his criticism of the “Photographic History of the Civil War,” a 10-volume text published in 1912 by Francis Trevelyan Miller and focused on the interplay between image and text within this work. Students and professors who attended the workshop said they found Trachtenberg’s insights intriguing and informative.

Trachtenberg opened the workshop with a question about the inherent nature of the book’s photographs, asking how they should be defined and interpreted. According to Trachtenberg, the paradoxical nature of the photographs stems from the difficulty of assigning only one meaning to an image which may be interpreted in many ways, which Miller’s “Photographic History” attempts to do.

“We can only be sure of one thing — that these photographs existed because of an event and that they are contingent upon this event,” he said.

Miller’s work, Trachtenberg said, narrows the possible scope with which to examine the photographs, and the extensive text detracts from the images.

“The readings are both over-burdened with historicist detail and over-determined with interpretations,” he said. “There is no mistaking what the pictures are meant to mean.”

Throughout his talk, Trachtenberg cited the mass distribution of Miller’s book and how, with its “textualization” of the images, it is now considered a legitimate historical study of the Civil War. The talk delved into the transformation of these personal mementos of the past into the collective memory of the nation, turning a portrait of a specific soldier into a lens through which future generations remember and interact with the past.

In her introduction of Trachtenberg, American Studies professor Laura Wexler, who organized the event, said Trachtenberg’s in-depth study of Civil War photography has made him truly renowned in his field.

“There has been no one more fruitful with the study of photography and American culture than Trachtenberg,” she said.

Members of the audience, mainly graduate students and professors, said they were keenly interested in Trachtenberg’s work, and their follow-up questions highlighted their engagement with the subject. One student asked Trachtenberg if the magnitude of the work, a 10-volume, multi-chapter text that was marketed to be a household text, did not in itself advocate a loose, skimmed reading and thereby liberate the images from the text, rendering the restraint of the captions and narrative less powerful.

Mary Dailey Pattee GRD ’12 said Trachtenberg’s work on historical photographs has been “crucial” to her work in studying the Civil War photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan. She also cited Trachtenberg as “one of the leading scholars on Civil War photography.”

The event was part of the Photographic Memory Workshop, which invites speakers once a month to discuss and study photographs and memory.

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