Photography and the American Civil War at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dr. Burns’ collection of medical photographs are showcased in a dedicated room as part of the MET’s exhibit. 
April 2 to September 2, 2013

The photographs of wounded soldiers and operative scenes taken by Civil War surgeon Reed Brockway Bontecou, MD are presented for the first time in a major art museum. 

Taken originally to show the effects of wounds, complications and the result of treatments the images are now recognized as among the highest level of portraiture. While it’s easy to photograph a beautiful subject, Bontecou photographed suffering and disability with a universal appeal as a result of his artistic posing and interpretation of war wounds. Jeff Rosenheim, Chief Curator of Photography of the MET and curator of this exhibit, has long recognized the artistic power of these portraits. 

The photographs show not the bravado of men about to enter battle, an all too familiar topic of interest for collectors and curators, but the true personal results of war for service personnel and their families. These images portray men, young and old, starring at us stoically, carrying their wounds. They are presented as people, not specimens, as a result of Bontecou’s art in posing. The images are significant additions to the visual culture of war and American medicine.The photographs are eloquent works of art that offer unflinching testimony to the suffering caused by America’s bloodiest war in which over 750,000 died and hundreds of thousands were wounded.

The exhibit is about documenting the war as well as the evolution of the medium of photography itself. Bontecou’s images presented near the end of the exhibit are representative of this evolution.

The slideshow provides a brief glimpse of the patrons party, the exhibition room with Dr. Bontecou’s photographs and the opening night reception.

Dr. Burns text- Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photographs by R. B. Bontecou is available form the Burns Press.