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A Strange and Fearful Interest : A Unique Look at the Civil War

New exhibition at The Huntington marks the War’s 150th anniversary and includes rarely seen images.

“The field of photography is extending itself to embrace subjects of strange and sometimes of fearful interest.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ reaction to images of Antietam

It’s estimated that 750,000 people died in the Civil War – 3% of the American population at that time. No war claimed as many American lives before or since.

When the war started, several inventions were coming of age  – some which were used to fight the war, and others, notably photography, to document it.

The Strange and Fearful Interest exhibition at The Huntington isn’t just a collection of portraits, it’s a photographic journey through the Civil War, and most especially the aftermath of the Civil War, when the nation struggled to understand what we had done to ourselves and each other.

Key moments captured in the exhibition include scenes of carnage at Antietam -- a battle in which 23,000 men died in one day, Lincoln’s assassination, personal grief, collective mourning, and finally, a sense of reconciliation.

The Huntington’s extensive collection of Civil War photography started with Henry Huntington himself, when he purchased three major collections of Abraham Lincoln materials, including work by war photographers Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, George Barnard, and others. These form the basis of the 200 images on display at the Boone Gallery.

“The Civil War,” says exhibition curator Jennifer Watts,  “changed the way we looked at death and mourning, changed our perception of mortality.

“The anniversary of the war provided the perfect opportunity to think about the war’s visual record and how it might be presented to the public.”

In addition to the photos, the exhibit includes stereographic images, audio commentary, kiosks, and a specially commissioned sound track to accompany the post-battle scenes at Antietam.

For a sense of the tragedy and power of Brady's Antietam photos, this is an excerpt from the an 1862 New York Times' review:

The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement.

"A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War," runs from October 13th to January 14, 2013, Boone Gallery, The Huntington.

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