The Lens of History
Essick captures the portraits of Civil War veterans’ children.
Academics, veterans and history buffs have been re-enacting Civil War battles for more than a century. Although the uniforms are usually tattered replicas and the muskets fire blanks, actors strive to recreate an authentic 19th-century military atmosphere.
Photographer Peter Essick, MA ’90, channeled this spirit in an assignment for National Geographic. In a series of portraits featuring the elderly children of Civil War veterans, he used the same tintype technique employed in the 1860s.
The subjects — Iris Lee Gay Jordan, 92, of College Park, Georgia, and Fred Upham, 93, of Fort Collins, Colorado — are two of the fewer than 35 such living offspring. Their veteran fathers were typically 70- or 80-something and in their second marriages when the children were born.
“The first thing Iris asked was if I wanted her to wear her hat and medal, which made for a more interesting photo,” says Essick of Jordan’s signature accessories, the latter of which she received from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “Fred’s father had met both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. It was little harder for him to sit still, which made it more difficult from a technical standpoint.”
Static subjects are crucial to the photographic procedure, a “wet-plate” method in which a glass or metal rectangle is swabbed with cotton that has been soaked in ether and silver nitrate. The plate is then loaded into a holder in a shrouded dark box on a tripod and exposed in an old fashioned view camera for about four seconds. For that reason, aftermath images of battlefields and unmoving, glowering soldiers were common.
“[Geological survey photographer] William Henry Jackson came back from Yellowstone in 1872 with no pictures of wildlife except for one shot of an elk,” says Essick, who teaches wet-plate photography to community outreach groups in his hometown Atlanta. “You feel a connection with the photographers who had to do this — slow and time-consuming. You couldn’t capture action the way you can with today’s cameras.”