Published: May 2012
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

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.