How Early Photographers Captured History’s First Images of War

This 1870 image is considered the first actual photograph taken of a battle. It shows a line of Prussian troops advancing. The photographer stood with the French defenders when he captured this image.

This 1870 image is considered the first actual photograph taken of a battle. It shows a line of Prussian troops advancing. The photographer stood with the French defenders when he captured this image.

“The equipment was still sensitive and it took several moments for a successful exposure. That didn’t keep early war photographers from trying.”

MATTHEW BRADY, the celebrated 19th century photographer, captured more than 10,000 images the American Civil War. Similarly, Roger Fenton, a British photographer, took hundreds of photos of the Crimean War in the 1850s. While many consider these men to be two of the earliest wartime photographers, they were actually not the first to capture conflict on film. A handful of pioneers had attempted it years before either man had set foot on a battlefield.

American troops ride into the city of Saltillo during the the war with Mexico. This early photograph, known as a daguerrotype, is one of the first images of a war ever captured on film. It was taken in 1847.

American troops ride into the city of Saltillo during the the war with Mexico. This early photograph, known as a daguerrotype, is one of the first images of a war ever captured on film. It was taken in 1847.

The very first war photographer was an American. While the particular artist’s name has been lost to history, we do know that he was attached to the U.S. forces fighting in the Mexican War in 1846 and 1847. These first wartime images were captured using a technology known as daguerreotype.

This early photography method was first developed in 1839 by a French inventor named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. It involved a rudimentary camera-like device that could project a scene onto a glass-encased polished metal plate that was treated with light-sensitive chemicals. The process, which could take up to ten minutes or longer to complete, required subjects to stand motionless for the duration of the exposure. Images were captured like mirror reflections on the glass plates, with the chemicals preserving the scene. Despite the limitations of daguerreotypes, they quickly became popular throughout Europe and the United States, with early photographers recording images of cityscapes, public events and even prominent people.

When the U.S. military went to war with Mexico in 1846, the now unknown daguerreotype photographer went with them taking likenesses of the army’s officers, Mexican civilians and the battlefields. Due to the delicate nature of the equipment and the length of time required for exposures, no scenes of actual battle were captured. Yet the pictures do represent the first images of an army operating in the field. Copies of the last surviving daguerreotype images of the Mexican American War are available here.

Roger Fenton took hundreds of photos of the Crimean War. This shot, taken in 1855, shows British troops dressed for battle. The image is 155 years old. CLICK TO ENLARGE

The first known war photographer was Carol Popp de Szathmari. A Hungarian, he travelled to the Black Sea region to record more than 200 images of the Crimean War. The conflict, which saw Britain and France pitted against Russia, was fought between 1853 and 1856. As many as nine of de Szathmari’s images of the war have survived to this day. French photographer Ernest Eduard de Caranza and Roger Fenton from Great Britain also shot scenes of the conflict. Fenton’s photos, more than 350 of them in all, are still viewable today. They include pictures of the landscapes, shots of various battlefields, portaits of British officers, as well as some fascinating images of life in the army camps. An extensive (and stunning) set of Fenton images is available here. 

Later in the decade, other photographers flocked to India to photograph the British suppression of the mutiny there and to China as well, to document the Second Opium War.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, an obscure New York photographer named Mathew Brady wrote to Abraham Lincoln himself asking permission to travel with the Union to record the war for posterity. Lincoln agreed and Brady ventured out into the field with a then-cutting-edge mobile photography studio that he financed out of his own pocket. Although the science of photography had improved considerably since its inception 20 years earlier, images of battle remained difficult to capture. The equipment was still sensitive and it took several moments for a successful exposure. That didn’t keep early war photographers from trying. In fact, during the first battle of Bull Run in 1861, Brady ventured so far forward he was nearly captured by Confederates when the Union troops were routed.

One of Mathew Brady’s most famous images showing the aftermath of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

Unable to get actual images of combat, Brady and his small but growing army of hired photographers simply staged the scenes, asking Federal troops to pose as if they really were in action. Despite their questionable journalistic authenticity, to civilians the shots offered a rare glimpse of what the action at the front really looked like. Folks at home also got to witness the human cost of war thanks to Brady and his cohorts like Alexander Gardener. Some of the most arresting images of the war show the bodies of slain soliders. Yet, even many of these iconic shots were staged, with Brady photographers and their assistants actually repositioning the dead in the frame for maximum visual effect.

Brady’s photography business also worked in portraits with everyone from generals Grant, McClelland, Sherman and Hooker to heroes like Joshua Chamberlain and George Armstrong Custer sitting for his cameras. Even Rebel generals like Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet and Robert E. Lee appeared before the lens as did Jefferson Davis. President Lincoln sat for Brady on several occasions. The portrait of the Great Emancipator that appears on the American $5 is based on one of Brady’s photos.

All in all, Brady spent $100,000 of his own money creating a visual record of the Civil War. Sadly, his efforts left him financially broken. In 1875, Congress did vote to compensate him to the tune of $25,000 but it was not enough to save the ailing photograher from bankruptcy. He died penniless in 1896 at the age of 76.

Brady and Co. were by no means the only photographers who captured the Civil War, but his work and that of his staff were certainly among the best known. In fact, many of the Civil War’s most famous photographers were actually employees of Brady.

Despite the presence of cameras near the battlefield during the Civil War, the first actual photo of combat itself wasn’t captured until the Franco Prussian War. The image (at the top) snapped on Sept. 1, 1870 from a French position, shows a line of Prussian skirmishers advancing. On the right side of the frame, a column of troops can be seen moving up the road with wounded and dead scattered before them.

Other combat photographs followed and as photography equipment improved, so did the quantity and quality of wartime images. By the time of the Boer War as well as the Russian Japanese War, combat photography was an established genre. Since then, other giants in the field have included: Robert Capa who captured the now-famous images of the Normady landings; Joe Rosenthaul, who photographed the flag raising on Iwo Jima; and Vietnam war photographer Horst Faas who died just last month.

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9 comments for “How Early Photographers Captured History’s First Images of War

  1. 12 June, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Excellent article thanks for sharing.

  2. 12 June, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Can you check the link for the daguerreotype images… it doesnt appear to work.

  3. 12 June, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Some great pictures…amazing to think how early some of them are…

    • 12 June, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      I know… that’s what made me write this. I was amazed by the pics of the war in Mexico. 1847!!!! Amazing!

  4. 18 February, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    While the article is interesting, there are several factual errors concerning photographic history. Daguerreotypes are images on highly polished metal (a silvered copper plate) not glass. There are encased in glass so as not to oxidize the metal. They are fairly durable once processed and dried. While highly detailed (and thus their popularity) they were one of a kind images of which multiple copies could not be made. Ultimately, the daguerreotype was replaced in the 1850’s but the wet-collodion (or wet plate process) that was a negative on glass (allowing multiple positive paper prints to be made from them). Nor was Daguerre a physicist. He was trained as an artist and ran a popular theatrical event in Paris called the Diorama (which used paintings on large glass plates, lighting and movement to give the illusion of moving images with varied times of day). Lastly, while Brady’s studio may have made thousands of civil war images, Brady himself only made a fraction of these. He hired camera operators to conduct much of the photography (including Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan – two of the best known photographers from this period – both eventually leaving Brady’s employment over disputes over the credited authorship of their photos). Brady’s failing eye site and business concerns made it more important for him to spend much of the war in his studios

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