This blogpost was researched and written by our Fall 2021 intern, Lauren Klebonis. Lauren is a sophomore at Arizona State University majoring in Art History.
During the tumultuous times of the United States Civil War (1861-1865), over 3,000 photographers made it their mission to visually record nearly every major battle of the war’s four year duration. From gruesome scenes of battlefields laid barren to the daily activities of soldiers, photographers were determined to catalogue the detriments of war and the destructive effects of violence on civilians and soldiers alike. In the Loudoun Museum’s collections, we have some objects that were meant to reflect combatants in a more positive light—military portraits.
Carte de visite, front and back. Lt. Maury, CSN (Confederate States Navy); Bendann Brothers Photography. Image by Loudon Museum.
What was Photography like in the Civil War Era?
One version of Civil War portraiture was the 1860s trend of the carte de visite (“visiting card”), a small photographic portrait made from an albumen print—which utilized the protein albumen, commonly found in egg whites, to bind the chemicals used to make photographs onto a paper mount.
This was a relatively simple process compared to previous technologies. The daguerreotype, invented in 1839 by Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, created a direct, positive image on a thin sheet of copper coated in silver without the need for a negative. Though a supremely useful invention if done correctly, daguerreotype photography eventually proved to be quite tedious and very fickle. Due to the many steps involved in creating an image—which required not only a good amount of care, but also patience—a single photograph could take anywhere from three to fifteen minutes to produce. If necessary a copy, called a redaguerreotype, could be made using the original daguerreotype though either lithography (a kind of primitive printing) or an engraving.
The carte de visite, meanwhile, was relatively inexpensive and easy to create. It soon became one of the first widely marketable methods of producing paper photographic prints using a negative. As they became more accessible and mainstream, many people started to collect these highly sought-after portraits. From pictures of loved-ones to images of celebrities, soldiers, and historical figures, cartes de visite soon became a hot commodity which could be bought and traded between friends, family, and lovers. The various cartes de visite housed in the Loudoun Museum’s collection came from a private collection rather than the direct descendants of the officers they portray.
Carte de visite, front and back. General Hardee, CSA (Confederate States Army); Bendann Brothers Photography. Image by Loudon Museum.
Civil War Photography and the Bendann Brothers
Throughout the time of the Civil War, photography became increasingly more standardized and professional, with many journals and publications relying on the medium to help legitimize their organizations. In fact, before the war, almost every major city in the South featured at least one prominent photography studio. However, the war destroyed the bustling photography industry of the South, with an ongoing Union blockade leading the area into an economic crisis which resulted in the drastic inflation for the prices of items already in short supply. Reflecting on the times, an 1862 article in Humphrey’s Journal even noted,
“the Photographic Art down South has completely died out in consequence of war.”
As the Union blockades slowly suffocated the southern photography industry, two German Jewish immigrants, Daniel and David Bendann, were just beginning to establish their photography careers. The brothers, in their teenage years, worked under well-known photographer Jesse Whitehurst. After learning the ins and outs of the art of photography, they graduated from his tutelage and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to open a Whitehurst studio. By the late 1850s, the brothers made the bold move of breaking away from their teacher to open their own studio called “Bendann Brothers,” first in Richmond and later in Baltimore. Initially using the daguerreotype process—the most cutting edge photographic technology of the time—the Bendann brothers quickly gained fame for their portrait photography, and built up a clientele that included presidents, actors, and everyday citizens.
Though they ended up in Baltimore for most of the Civil War, their life’s work involved photographing many southerners—including well-known Confederate officers like Naval Lieutenant Maury and Army Generals Hardee and A.S. Johnston. The Bendann brothers made their living portraying men such as these to their best advantage, and sold many copies of the cartes de visite like the ones at Loudoun Museum during and after the war.
Carte de visite, front and back. A.S. Johnston; Bendann Brothers Photography. Image by Loudon Museum.
Years after the Civil War, the gallery transitioned to displaying art, but it is still in existence—owned and operated by Bendann descendants. This historic business has quite a legacy with the innovative photography and perseverance of its founders during the uncertain times of the Civil War.
Blum, Isidor. The Jews of Baltimore. Baltimore: Washington Historical Review Publishing Company. 1910. https://archive.org/details/jewsofbaltimoreh00blum/page/160/mode/2up?q=bendann.
Broomall, James. "Photography during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 14 Dec. 2020. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/photography-during-the-civil-war/
"The Daguerreotype Medium." Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/daguerreotypes/articles-and-essays/the-daguerreotype-medium/
"History." Bendann Art Galleries. http://www.bendannartgalleries.com/BendannHistory.htm
Newhall, Beaumont (April, 1955). "60,000 Eggs A Day." Journal of Photography of George Eastman House. Rochester, N.Y.: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House Inc. IV (4): 25–26.