The New York Review of Books: Someone Else's Children

The Burns Archive is pleased to announce our exhibition Reed Bontecou: Masterpieces of Civil War Portraiture and accompanying publication Shooting Soldiers have been covered by The New York Review of Books:

Someone Else’s Children

Christopher Benfey
November 28, 2011

My wife and I have two sons, aged eighteen and twenty-two. Both have registered for the Selective Service, as the law requires. (“Our objective is to register you,” the official letter reminded them, “not to have you prosecuted.”) We don’t have a clear idea of Tommy’s or Nicholas’s views regarding military service; we hope that circumstances won’t force us to find out. None of us knows any men or women currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are someone else’s children. We watch news reports of wounded veterans learning to walk with prosthetic limbs. Recent stories about body parts mislaid at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base fill us with outrage. Still, for many of us, it is a general, not an individualized outrage.

During the Civil War, in contrast, the mangling of young bodies was evident to all. Three million volunteers armed with advanced rifles, and firing at one another at point-blank range, fought on battlefields often not far from their own homes. American writers, many of whom had children in the war, were not insulated from the carnage. Fred Stowe was standing in the graveyard on Cemetery Ridge, above Gettysburg, when a live shell exploded near his ear, opening a wound that never healed. Charles Longfellow sought distraction from the trauma of the war in Yokohama, where he had a giant carp tattooed across his back, around the scars of two bullet holes. Emily Dickinson chose as her literary advisor a Union colonel suffering from PTSD: “We can find no scar,” she wrote in a famous poem, “But internal difference— / Where the Meanings, are.”

Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman served as nurses and eyewitness reporters in the hideous Union hospitals in Washington, D. C. Alcott contracted typhoid in the septic wards and wrote Little Women, about the daughters of a father wounded in the war, while treating herself with mercury. Whitman ministered to the needs of wounded soldiers while also keeping a careful visual record of everything he saw, “this other freight of helpless worn and wounded youth,” as he wrote to Emerson. “Doctors sawed arms & legs off from morning till night,” he reported in his journal. He was dismayed to see “a heap of feet, arms, legs, etc., under a tree in front of a hospital.” As he moved from bed to bed in the overcrowded wards, he was shocked by the youth of the victims. “Charles Miller, bed 19, company D, 53rd Pennsylvania, is only sixteen years of age, very bright, courageous boy, left leg amputated below the knee.”

The remarkable medical photographs of the Civil War surgeon-photographer Reed Bontecou—now published in their entirety for the first time and recently shown at The Robert Anderson gallery in New York—bring us closer still. Bontecou, from Troy, New York, was a classifier of seashells and an ornithologist who had traveled in the Amazon before the war collecting specimens. A pioneer in surgical procedures known for the dexterity and speed of his operations, he was also a photographer of genius. His iconic image, “A Morning’s Work,” shows a pile of amputated legs he himself had sawed off earlier that day. Bontecou’s albums served many ends, most obviously instruction, with before-and-after shots, in the identification and treatment of conditions like gangrene and bullets lodged in bone. But they also aided in the later identification of veterans for disbursement of disability and pension funds. Bontecou was apparently an engaging and capable administrator of army hospitals who was once threatened with disciplinary action for inviting a recovering Confederate officer to his home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Most poignant and painful is Bontecou’s artistic ability to capture the terror of his patients, what the editor and collector of medical photographs Stanley Burns, M.D., calls “individual bereavement.” Pvt. John Parmenter, unbearably young, lies prone on an army cot with his beautiful and vulnerable face turned towards us and his gangrenous foot propped up on a cushion. Then, in another photograph, we see him lying deathly pale and unconscious; a surgeon with his hand on one of Parmenter’s bent knees looks down thoughtfully at the severed foot. The picture has some of the bleak, geometrical power of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat.

In another arresting image, Robert Fryer, eighteen years old and wearing his cap and uniform, all gold buttons carefully buttoned, holds his hand to his chest as though playfully mimicking a handgun. His features are deadpan. At first, we assume his hand is partially hidden in his jacket. But no, it’s an illusion, presumably deliberate on the part of the photographer. Fryer’s middle, ring, and little fingers are amputated. According to Bontecou’s notes, “Patient has good use of forefinger and thumb.” Perhaps he watched young Robert Fryer buttoning his coat.

The photographs are a bitter reminder of the hideous race between better medical response and ever more devastating weaponry. If, as Burns notes, the improvised explosive device (IED) has changed the way war is fought and the wounded treated today, the novelty of the Crimean War and the Civil War was the 58 caliber Minie Ball, named for its inventor, Claude-Etienne Minié. This was a war in which 94% of Union wounds were caused by bullets. The Minie Ball, Burns remarks, “shattered and fractured bone easily and commonly carried clothing and other debris with it into the wound, making infection a constant companion in almost every case.” Bontecou’s images “documented the battle against gunshot wounds,” at a time when battle armor was minimal or absent and two years before the discovery of the principles of antiseptic surgery in 1867. Burns adds grimly, “Many of the men we see here are going to die.”

There is another race on display in these photographs, between the sheer horror of the army hospital and our ability to find words and images adequate to the horror. “The real war,” Whitman wrote in Specimen Days, “will never get in the books.” The simple identification boards that many of Bontecou’s patients hold in their hands, with their name and company inscribed in white chalk, carry their own dire and individualized lyricism, as though to say, in Whitman’s resonant words: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” Andsell H. Beam, shot in the skull on April 6th, 1865, bows over his identification board as though in prayer, or in simple disbelief in his unfathomable fate. “Now that I have lived for 8 or 9 days amid such scenes as the camps furnish,” Whitman wrote his mother, “… really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.”

Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography By R.B. Bontecou by Dr. Stanley M. Burns has recently been published.


Civil War Book Review: Shooting Soldiers

Looking Wounded Soldiers in the Eye

Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography by R. B. Bontecou showcases the Civil War photography of Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, Surgeon-in-Charge of Harewood General Hospital in Washington, D.C. This book is the first in a series of Bontecou’s photographs of identified soldiers from 101 regiments from the Harewood Hospital Album.

While the photographs may be graphic to some readers, it documents the high cost that soldiers paid for what they believed in a country of united states. Bontecou’s photographs, or carte de visites (CDV) were a result of the order by Surgeon General William A. Hammond to document the cases that the surgeons worked on, their treatment, and their outcomes. Many of Bontecou’s photographs helped illustrated the post-war publication of The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.

The artistry of Bontecou’s pictures has been recognized as among the highest levels of photographic art and helped make him a legend among medical photographers. “Due to their historical precedence there can be no doubt that Bontecou’s carte de visite album is the premier medical photograph album of the Civil War” (8). Included among the images are close-ups of patients in the OR and of surgeries in progress the earliest known of such views.

This volume also contains a sketch of Bontecou’s career, a history of the various images, and a brief summary of the last campaigns of the war. Each of the images identifies the soldier, what unit he belonged to, his wound, where received and date, treatment, and outcome. Some of the images have more information than others. The last few pages of the book list the battles, from the Wilderness to Appomattox, the soldiers in this book, their unit and plate number. Also included in this section are those with no battle listed and those who died of disease (not in battle). This book represents the earliest efforts of one physician to document war-related wounds and, by the use of photography, present to fellow physicians a way of caring for those wounds.

Shooting Soldiers is a well-written, fast and easy-to- read book. Each image gives the reader a look into the tragic costs of the most turbulent time in America’s history.

The author of this book, Dr. Stanley B. Burns, M.D., an internationally known historian, publisher, and archivist, is an ophthalmologist in New York City and Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Peter J. D’Onofrio, Ph.D. is the president of the Society of Civil War Soldiers, Inc., the largest non-profit, tax-exempt, international educational group dedicated to the study and preservation of Civil War era medical and surgical techniques and the professionals who performed those techniques. He is also the editor/publisher of the Society’s quarterly Journal of Civil War Medicine. He can be reached at socwsurgeons@aol.com or through the web site at www.civilwarsurgeons.org.

To Learn more about Civil War Book Review, Louisiana State University Libraries' Special Collections please visit www.cwbr.com

To Purchase Shooting Soldiers, visit our online book store http://burnspress.com/



 Observatory: 543 Union Street (at Nevins), Brooklyn, NY 11215
Monday, December 5th, 8:00pm, Admission: $5
 Presented by Morbid Anatomy

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These photographs, from the beginning of the practice until now, are special mementos that hold deep meaning for mourners through visually “embalming” the dead. Although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, until recent years they were largely unseen and unknown. Dr. Burns recognized the importance of this phenomenon in his early collecting when he bought his first postmortem photographs in 1976. Since that time he has amassed the most comprehensive collection of postmortem photography in the world and has curated several exhibits and published three books on the subject: the Sleeping Beauty series. Tonight, Dr. Burns will speak about the practice of postmortem photography from the 19th century until today and share hundreds of images from his collection.

About Sleeping Beauty: Dr. Burns’ first book on postmortem photography, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America (1990) has been widely recognized as one of the most important photography books of all time. Sleeping Beauty has influenced an eclectic array of fields, from bereavement counseling and education to cultural anthropology, history, medicine, philosophy, religion and spirituality (not to mention pop music) and has been cited in debates on the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. It has been the subject of numerous scholarly papers as well as seminars and exhibitions at notable institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The New Museum of Contemporary Art. A decade later the Archive published Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement & The Family in Memorial Photography American & European Traditions in conjunction with an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. Sleeping Beauty III Memorial Photography: The Children, the third installment in this series was released this year to accompany a traveling exhibition.

To learn about Burns Archive Press titles PLEASE VISIT OUR ONLINE BOOK STORE

These titles will be available for sale & signing at Observatory the night of the lecture:
Sleeping Beauty III Memorial Photography: The Children

Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement & The Family in Memorial Photography… 
Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography by R.B. Bontecou 
News Art: Manipulated Photographs from the Burns Archive
Deadly Intent, Crime & Punishment: Photographs from the Burns Archive 
Seeing Insanity: Photography & The Depiction of Mental Illness 

Below are a few of the hundreds of images that will be discussed: 



Mirrors and Reflections: Reception Tomorrow Night

November 17, 2011 through January 7, 2012  
Robert Anderson Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, Suite 503, New York, NY, 10019

Mirrors and Reflections:
A Group Show Curated by Evelyne Z. Daitz of the Witkin Gallery and and Alison Bradley

Inspired by Edward Steichen’s photograph, The Little Round Mirror, 1906, Mirrors and Reflections is a tour de force of photographs of reflective surfaces of all sorts. Just as the mirror is integral to the camera, so it seems photographers are inseparable from their fascination with mirrored images. Water, mirrors, glass, open windows seen through mirrors, iconic buildings reflected in puddles, portraiture, and landscapes writ large the exhibition includes work by artists such as Atget, Brassai, Rudy Burckhardt, Elliott Erwitt, Lillian Bassman, Michael Eastman, Andre Kertesz, Steichen, Wayne Source, George Tice, Barbara Mensch, Joan Murray, Geoff Winningham, and Henry Wolf, self portraits by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Eduard Boubat and anonymous photographs as well as a 19th Century hand painted image of Geishas. Robert Anderson Gallery is very happy to be working with Curator Evelyne Z. Daitz, Witkin Gallery, on this special holiday show. 

The Burns Collection is participating with four vintage photographs.

This exhibition is a great opportunity to view a spectacular line-up of photographers.

Here is a preview of the photographs on display from The Burns Collection, including a rare hand-tinted albumen print by Kusakabe Kimbei:

Exhibition Update: Shadow and Substance at the NY State Museum

222 Madison Ave, Albany, NY 12230.
Saturday, October 15, 2011 - Saturday, March 31, 2012 
Monday - Saturday, 9:30 AM - 5:00 PM 
Closed Sundays 
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day

The 113 images in Shadow and Substance include portraits, snapshots and photographs documenting industries, property and events related to the African-American experience from the beginning of photography to today.

Originally presented by the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, and curated by Modupe Labode, Ph.D., History and Public Scholar of African-American History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the exhibition focuses on a wide range of themes: Bondage and Freedom; Civil War and Reconstruction; The Nadir; Jim Crow and Lynching; Community Life; Family Albums; Black Reflections on Black life; and Celebrations.

Here is a preview slideshow of the installation at The New York State Museum:

 To Learn More About This Traveling Exhibition and How You Can Participate
Please Visit HERE


Bellevue Literary Review 10th Anniversary Celebration

A unique contribution to both literature and medicine, the Bellevue Literary Review publishes works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that touch upon relationships to illness, health, and healing. It is published by the Department of Medicine twice a year. Over the past decade, the BLR has flourished, becoming a prominent voice in the field of narrative medicine and in the literary magazine community at large.

The Bellevue Literary Review celebrated their 10th anniversary with a reading followed by a reception at The Bellevue Hospital Rotunda in New York City this past Sunday, October 30.
Slide Show of the Reading and Celebration (click images to enlarge):

Readers Featured:

Paul Harding’s novel, Tinkers, published by the Bellevue Literary Press, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers. He has taught writing at Harvard University, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Grinnell College. His second novel, Enon, is forthcoming.

David Oshinsky holds the Jack S. Blanton Chair in History at the University of Texas and is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at New York University. His books include Polio: An American Story, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2006. His essays and reviews appear regularly in The New York Times and other publications.

Louise Blecher Rose
has published a novel, The Launching of Barbara Fabrikant, and a number of stories in Redbook Magazine. She taught in the Columbia Undergraduate Writing program for twenty-five years, received an NEA grant for a second novel, and is currently teaching literature and creative writing in Brooklyn and Patchogue at St. Joseph’s College.

Hal Sirowitz is the author of six collections of poetry with one forthcoming from Backwaters Press in Nebraska. He also has poems in an anthology, Beauty Is a Verb, which is about disabilities.

Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. The most recent among her many books is a volume of poetry, The Ache of AppetiteStrange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry (Copper Beech Press) and a memoir, (Paul Dry Books).

To learn more about The Bellevue Literary Review and The Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction (supported by Stanley B. Burns, MD) Click HERE.

American Academy of Ophthalmology Exhibition

The American Academy of Ophthalmology's Museum of Vision presented “Picturing the Eye: Ophthalmic Photography and Film,” an exhibit focused on the extraordinary power of ophthalmic imaging. While images of eyes and eye disease have been made almost since man was able to draw, the superiority of photography and film to capture the exact nature of disease and its cure is without parallel.

A concise history of the profession highlighting some major achievements and iconic photographs will be on display from Stanley B. Burns, MD and the Burns Archive – the nation's largest collection of medical photography. The Museum of Vision will exhibit camera equipment, period photographs, stereographs the Ophthalmic Photographers' Society, entitled “Our Ophthalmic Heritage: The Evolution of Ophthalmic Imaging.”

“Both the exhibit and the accompanying symposium are completely unique ways to illustrate a truly fascinating part of our ophthalmic heritage,” said Jenny Benjamin, Director of the Museum of Vision. “While images of eyes and eye disease have been created since the dawn of humankind, the greatness of photography and film in capturing the exact nature of disease and its cure is without parallel.”

View images from the American Academy of Ophthalmology Annual Meeting in the slide show below (click to to enlarge images):

To learn more about the history of Ophthalmic Photography read 
Dr. Burns' Ophthalmology: A Photographic History 1845-1945

655 Beach Street  San Francisco, CA