Published: May 2012

A Sketch in Time

Vendors at Gettysburg reenactment

Civil War Reenvisioned

Every year thousands of Americans keep the memory alive by reenacting Civil War campaigns and battles. Photographer Richard Barnes used period techniques to make authentic-looking images that include glimpses of the modern world.

By Harry Katz
Photograph by Richard Barnes

The Civil War maintains a strong grip on the American imagination, especially for those who reenact the conflict’s battles. Seeking authenticity, reenactor units may have specific rules: Union forage hats must be indigo, not navy blue; no coon tails are allowed on Confederate hats; trappings like modern eyeglasses and wristwatches are off-limits. Richard Barnes aims for a different sort of authenticity in his images. He works with equipment that Civil War-era photographers would recognize. He uses a wooden camera, aluminum plates coated in collodion and dipped in silver nitrate, and an ice-fishing tent as a darkroom. The plates dry quickly, distressing the photographs around the edges, making them look historical. But rather than excluding the modern world, he intentionally reveals it: soldiers mustering near portable toilets, rows of parked cars beyond the battlefield. These evoke what Barnes calls “the slippage of time”—moments when past and present collide.

Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings From the Battlefront, by Harry Katz and Vincent Virga, is being published this month by W. W. Norton & Company. Richard Barnes documented Civil War reenactments using a wet-plate process, the photographic technique of that era.
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