Making Sense of 'Shadows'

A collection of Civil War photographs offers a new perspective on history


This image shot by an unknown photographer depicts Battery A of the 2nd United States Colored Artillery, an African-American Civil War regiment.

The Civil War never really ended for art collector Julia “Judy” Norrell, who still struggles with its legacy.

“I’ve always tried to reconcile the South that I love with the South that I hate,” says Norrell, 77, an Arkansas native and D.C. resident who has acquired dozens of photographs of the conflict, taken from both Union and Confederate perspectives, in an effort to make the war make sense. “Because I’m Southern and because I’m a child of politicians, I’ve always had to reconcile.”

More than 30 images from Norrell’s collection are on view in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Shadows of History” exhibit. The snapshots, including early forms of photographic media (such as tintype, ambrotype and cartes-de-visite portraits), depict stiffly posed soldiers, busy encampments and empty, war-ravaged towns. There are a number of works by famed Civil War photographers Mathew Brady, Alexander Garner and Timothy O’Sullivan, along with pieces by unknown artists.

Unlike modern-day war photos, there are no action shots; Civil War-era photography equipment was too cumbersome for dangerous situations. Instead, photogs focused on post-battle scenes, paying attention to composition and framing. Images were reproduced as engravings in newspapers. “This was the first time people were seeing photos of war,” says Kaitlin Booher, the Corcoran’s assistant curator of photography and media arts. “It was a moment when people’s relationship to images was being set.”

Four notable shots by an unknown photographer depict an African-American regiment, the Battery A of the 2nd United States Colored Artillery, practicing gun drills with the Army of Cumberland in Tennessee around 1863. Curators are still trying to discover the series’ purpose, but Norrell believes she’s the only collector who owns the entire sequence. “When these were offered to me, I had about 10 seconds to make a decision” about whether to buy them, Norrell says. “Something in me felt that never again in my lifetime would I be able to get them.”

Her collection has helped Norrell comprehend the “horror of the war,” as well as the extent to which African-Americans were involved on both sides of the conflict. “I have a whole new insight into the North,” Norrell says. “I understand the North and the South together now.”

Spotlight
“Shadows of History” also features works by Whitfield Lovell, including a life-size charcoal drawing of an African-American Civil War soldier on wooden boards. “It’s intimate, but also monumental in scale,” says Corcoran assistant curator Kaitlin Booher.

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; $8-$10, through May 20; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)

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Katie Aberbach · February 23, 2012