To say that Garry Adelman is enthusiastic about Civil War photography would be an understatement at the very least. The Director of History and Education at the American Battlefield Trust is also vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography as well as a very energetic licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg.
Frequently Adelman will present “Civil War Photography Extravaganzas.” It’s a humorous and fast-paced show of photographs to help educate the audience about a battlefield and to develop an understanding of what happened, who was involved and the need for preservation.
I have seen several of these extravaganzas and they are always fun.
Adelman and his co-workers are constantly looking through the 10,000-plus documentary photos taken during the war to build the extravaganza. In fact, one of the things Adelman normally does during a show is to debunk the myth from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series that many of the glass plates from the Civil War were used in greenhouses and faded away.
“The negatives are there. We know where the negatives are,” Adelman said in one show. “They are almost entirely at the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress (which are hi-res online), as well as the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.”
After gathering historic images for the show, Adelman travels to the battlefields and makes matching photos of the place today. By matching up details in a photo taken during the Civil War, such as a rock with a peculiar crack, an oddly shaped hilltop, or a house in the distance, with a recent photo, Adelman orients the audience so when they walk the battlefield they have an understanding of what they are looking at.
One of the main reasons that Adelman can match such fine details is because the large negatives from the Civil War yield resolution equal to, or greater than, our modern digital cameras.
“The reason we can blow up on these photos, whether they are prints made from glass plate negatives or the negatives themselves, is that Civil War negatives are huge — 4”x10”, 7”x9”, 8”x10” — 25 to 50 times larger than the 35mm negatives that most of us grew up with” Adelman said. “Unlike those grainy 35mm negatives and unlike even the best digital camera, it cannot approach the resolution on a Civil War glass plate negative from 150-plus years ago. Therefore, you can blow up and see great details within photos. You can catch people smiling in Civil War photos. You can read names on gravestones in Civil War photos.”
At this point in a couple of the shows I attended, Adelman projected a Civil War photo of a man, shown from head to toe, in front of a house. He then shows an enlargement of just the hands. The details in the enlargement normally bring a response from the audience as the creases in the man’s knuckles are clearly visible.
In a modern digital camera, the image is made up of pixels. The more pixels, the higher the resolution, the bigger the file size and the better the photo can be enlarged. Most cell phone cameras have a small imaging chip and produce small files at 72 ppi, (pixels per inch), which look OK on the phone’s screen but quickly lose quality when enlarged.
The DSLR that I take photographs with has a larger imaging chip packed with many more pixels, and I normally produce very large files at 300 ppi. This makes it possible to make quality enlargements with good detail.
But in the Civil War they did what we today call large format photography. Those big 4”x5” and 8”x10” negatives have a big advantage over most digital images because, simply, they’re bigger to start with. By the time you enlarge a digital image to the starting size of the negative you’re already losing quality. When you go beyond that, you soon reach the point of pixelation, seeing individual pixels in the print, depending on the type of camera you have.
However, there are a few large format digital cameras out there that are up to the challenge. Just be ready to mortgage your home. The cost of an 8”x10” digital camera starts at $106,000. And I’m not sure that includes the lens.
Adelman often shows another photo to illustrate what you can see when you zoom in on one of these large format negatives from the Civil War. I downloaded the high-resolution scan, 2,125 ppi, from the Library of Congress to share with you.
The original shows what seems to be an ordinary photo of the reviewing stand during the “Grand Review” of the Union army held in May of 1865.
But when you enlarge the photo and crop in tight on the front row, you see from left to right, Gen. U.S. Grant, Pres. Andrew Johnson, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Gen. William T. Sherman and at the far right is Gen. George Gordon Meade, who defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.