“The March” and photography in the Civil War

“The March” and photography in the Civil War

Just finished reading “The March” by E.L. Doctorow. It is a fictional novel of Sherman’s March from Savannah to just outside of Raleigh, NC. It stopped in Raleigh because Lee surrendered to Grant at that point in the march. The story is fascinating and Doctorow’s fictionalization of this history is gripping. It captures the misery of the slaves and the cruelty of the slave owners while showing that racism extended to the North and many of the Northern leaders shared the racist opinions of the southern residents. Critics have pointed out that one of the more interesting and important characters is Josiah Culp, a photographer from Philadelphia, licensed by the US Army, there being recognition that this war will be photographed widely and recorded for posterity. Culp has a young freed  man (Calvin) who works as his assistant. Culp meets two of the more interesting characters, Arly and Will, and makes their portrait. Will is dead. Culp exclaims that this is even better. He takes a picture of the two friends sitting on a bench with Arly holding Will upright. A day later Culp dies while digging a grave for Will. Arly puts both Culp and Will in the grave and shortly assumes the leadership role in this group of people.
The next day as the entourage is leaving Columbia bound for North Carolina Calvin tells Arly to stop. Arly screams “What is it now?”
“Mr. Culp taught me to look at things, and that is what I’m doing. Most people don’t really look at what they’re looking at. But we have to. We have to look at things for them.” As they continue on with Arly anxious to leave. Calvin feels he must not leave Columbia until he had made as many negatives of the ruined city as his supplies allowed. “Time goes on,’ Mr Culp often reminded him, ‘Time goes on, things change, from moment to moment, and a photo is all that remains of the moment past.”
Later Arly spots Miss Emily Thompson who had become a nurse. He directs Calvin to follow her. They come upon a house where a large number of black children are playing out front. Calvin stops and goes into the yard to speak with Miss Thompson. When he returns with Arly now obviously enraged he says, “I’m doing what I do,which is to see things. I see this woman and these orphan children.
In spite of Mr. Culp’s devotion to his art and his belief in its historical value, it is clear that a photograph has no more ability to preserve reality than a diary, a letter, or a newspaper article. In spite of that, Culp and then Calvin and their wagon loaded with equipment make real the fictional narratives of other characters. This is a terrific bit of writing that gives the entire novel its historical feel.
From my point of view Culp is a true documentary photographer, he believes and teaches that  “Many Look, Few See.”

 

 

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