Civil War Photography and the Contemporary War Film

By John Trafton

Filmic depictions of war are in constant dialogue with both past genre codes and contemporaneous debates and representational modes; war films remember previous war film cycles and draw on the resources of the present day to say something new about the nature of war. The American Civil War, a conflict that ended three decades before the Lumière exhibitions, was viscerally documented through large-scale panorama paintings, still photography, and soldier testimonials, leaving behind representational principles that would later inform the development of war film genre codes. These pre-cinema modes for representing warfare can be seen as rehearsals for the war film in different ways. In this article, I will provide a brief overview on Civil War photography and how its influence can be felt in war cinema.


Fig. 1 Two photographs from U.S. aerial gunner Ed Drew, taken in Afghanistan in 2013 using the same wet-plate collodion process used during the American Civil War.

Fig. 1 Two photographs from U.S. aerial gunner Ed Drew, taken in Afghanistan in 2013 using the same wet-plate collodion process used during the American Civil War.


In 2013 I came across a Guardian story on Ed Drew, a U.S. aerial gunner serving in Afghanistan who had brought with him a field camera that used a wet-plate collodion process.[1] This was the first time since the American Civil War that this process had been used to document soldiering-life. The resulting photographs of his fellow soldiers were revealing: “I know all of my subjects well and fly with them on missions, and I felt it essential in telling their story that I connect with them at a close level. No photographic process can achieve this better than a wet plate”.[2] The soldiers are positioned in ways that are eerily reminiscent of the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady and his cohorts. There are solo portrait pictures of soldiers, seated or standing against a canvas backdrop, rarely smiling, and emoting their combat experience through their facial features. Also, there are group photographs of soldiers posing in-camp, in front of helicopters or gunnery equipment. What these photographs have in common is that war is presented as haunted sites in historical memory, a persistent feature of war photography since the Civil War.


Fig. 2 “A Lone Grave” – Alexander Gardner (1862)

Fig. 2 “A Lone Grave” – Alexander Gardner (1862).


Throughout the twentieth century, much of the discussion of Civil War photography centered on Matthew Brady, his legacy (exhibited strongly in Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary The Civil War) eclipsing those who worked with him. In recent years, Alexander Gardner, a Scottish immigrant who produced some of the most moving photographs of the war (including several iconic portraits of Abraham Lincoln), has received well-deserved attention, notably in the 2012 BBC documentary The Scot Who Shot the American Civil War (Andy Twaddle), coinciding with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam, and in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (also 2012). Richard Lowry rightly observes that the photographs of Alexander Gardner are considered to be some of the most iconic and haunting images of the Civil war because they “helped the country to understand what it was looking at”; Gardner understood that he was introducing the country “to a new way of seeing war,” and that his images contained a series of signs that could be translated into discernible themes of the war.[3] Like Ed Drew’s photographs of Afghanistan, Gardner’s photography found its strength in its ability to preserve micro-moments in the war’s history that spoke volumes about the larger history of the war; each photograph visually communicates a small story, frozen in time, that deepens the meaning of the grand story. Civil War photography preserves a graphic history where, in the words of Roland Barthes, time is “out of place”,[4] and suffering and tragedy are transmitted through the face; these images are, according to Hermann Kappelhoff, “endlessly condensed micro-episode[s] occurring as affect”.[5] Gardner framed the territory in a similar way as landscape painters had done previously, yet he populated these familiar spaces with the dead and the bereaved as a disruption to “the terrain of everyday life” (3) (fig.2). This strategy placed his photographs in contrast to the battlefield sketch illustrations of Harpers Weekly and presented these images as moments out of time. Civil War photography, according to Alan Trachtenberg, portrayed the war “as an event in real space and time” by presenting its subjects as only fragments of a larger history, with no connection to the overriding political rationale for war.[6] The same can be argued of motion picture moments in war cinema. The flag raising on Mt. Suribachi, photographed by Joe Rosenthal in 1945 and featured live in Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), is a moment that generates meaning “without connecting syntax”;[7] John Miller’s (Tom Hanks) shell-shocked gaze into the camera in Saving Private Ryan (1998) performs a similar task. Photography breaks the history of a war into thousands of small pieces from which the viewer can derive broader truths about the whole.


Fig. 3. A Union soldier lies dead at Cold Harbor, Virginia (left) in 1864, and a G.I. convulses in death throes in a Vietnamese forest in In the Year of the Pig (1968) (right).

Fig. 3. A Union soldier lies dead at Cold Harbor, Virginia (left) in 1864, and a G.I. convulses in death throes in a Vietnamese forest in In the Year of the Pig (1968) (right).


A critical element behind the lasting influence of Civil War photography was that they provided war stories with pathos. This was achieved through what art historian Aby Warburg termed “pathos formula,” the way that a work of art is aesthetically organized so that the spectator can experience both chaos and remembrance from a safe vantage point. Pathos formulas in war cinema are strategies by which the intensity of combat is transferred into a formalized aesthetic.[8] To illustrate how formulas of pathos operate in war photography, consider the two photographs above (fig.3). The viewer may not know the names of either soldier, but what cannot be described in a June 1864 edition of Harper’s Weekly or in a New York Times article circa 1965–1968 is transcribed through these images. In both images, the brutality of combat is worn on the face, where, according to Kappelhoff, “the moment of blinding horror is stretched out in time as a finely graded play of sensation”; the emotion becomes an image and the image becomes an emotion.[9] Elisabeth Bronfen adds that the pathos provided by these figures “[apprehends] the ungraspable intensity of war” because a balance is struck between “comprehending an intense emotion by tapping into ones own imaginative capacity and offering a conceptual presentation of it”.[10] The old adage that one cannot truly imagine war unless one has experienced it first-hand is formally addressed through pathos: the spectator’s ability to arrive at some level of understanding the human cost of war is based on the visual presentation of a human emotion that can be perceived without having physically experienced the depicted event personally. The emotions transmitted by both images are not informed by time or place, and yet they feel familiar to us.

The digital videos from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, which feature in war documentaries and inform the narrative strategies of several contemporary war films, provide a particular form of pathos and offer a variety of histories and fragments that contribute to the larger war story. The visual codes of the Iraq War films, for example, are informed by digital media and contemporary surveillance and targeting technology, what Garrett Stewart describes as “narrative agency subsumed to technology at every level, from aerial tracking…to eye-level confrontations…”.[11] At first glance, this appears to be a far cry from Civil War era photography; the Life Magazine photographs of World War II and the Vietnam War feel painfully antiquated by comparison, and consequently Brady’s photographs appear as antiques from a primitive age. Contemporary war films also appear to be wholly distinct from any previous war film cycles, and yet this is not the case; twenty-first century war films are a continuing chapter in the broader history of war cinema, as there are underlying principles behind Civil War photography that are retained in contemporary war films.

In contemporary war films, many soldiers assume the role of the war photographer, under the auspice of digital video and photography technology becoming cheaper, lighter, and more mobile. War communication technology, according to Patricia Pisters, has become democratized, “no longer organized from the top down”.[12] The soldier’s photos and videos serve as time capsules, not instructing the viewer on the broader history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but rather offering ways of reading this larger history. To illustrate how this operates in contemporary war cinema, let’s consider two scenes, one from Paul Haggis’s Iraq War polemic In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012).


Trafton Fig 4

Fig. 4 Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) photographs a war atrocity on his cell phone in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007).


In the Valley of Elah (Co-written by Mark Boal, screenwriter for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) was one of the earliest fictional narrative Iraq War films to see both commercial and critical success. The film, set in the American Southwest, follows Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a Vietnam War veteran, investigating the murder of his Iraq War veteran son Mike (Jonathan Tucker). During his investigation, Hank recovers his son’s cell phone from the military barracks and hires a technician to recover the data from the phone in the hope that it may generate a lead. A video recovered from the phone details an incident based on a true story that Boal recounted in an interview for Playboy: Mike and a fellow serviceman, Gordon Bonner (Jake McLaughlin), are on patrol in Iraq, filming passing goat herds and Iraqi civilians from their Humvee. Mike spots something on the road ahead. Bonner orders Mike to speed up, as it is a strict military procedure not to slow down for any on-road impediments, lest it be a decoy for an IED or ambush. The camera jolts upward as the Humvee runs over the obstruction in its wake, revealed later in the film to be an Iraqi child. The footage pixilates, rendering the subjects inscrutable, and then ends. Later Hank, having solved the mystery behind his son’s murder at the hands of other traumatized veterans, re-imagines the incident captured on Mike’s cell phone. In this scene, Hank sits in the driver’s seat of his truck, parked outside the military base, filmed from outside of his truck in a medium shot. Editor Jo Francis cuts to Mike’s video footage shown earlier in the film (a goat herd on the side of the road). We cut back to Hank behind the wheel, the framing tighter than before, and he turns his head towards the passenger seat. Then we cut to Bonner swatting the camera away, the same point-of-view shot from before, only this time it is filmed on 35-millimeter and framed as a reaction shot to Hank turning his head. Bonner looks forward, spots the Iraqi child on the road ahead, and reacts to it. The film then cuts back to Hank, the framing even tighter, turning his head to look forward. It is as if Hank is re-experiencing war trauma, long suppressed in the decades that followed Vietnam, by putting himself in Mike’s place. The cutting between Hank and Mike becomes quicker as Bonner tells Mike  not to stop. The film briefly returns to the cell phone footage after Mike has run over the child, the low, canted angle shot of Mike from the passenger seat. In this shot, the screen does not pixilate as seen before. The viewer sees Mike’s hand reach for the camera. The film finally cuts back to 35-millimeter, showing Mike rush out of the vehicle with his camera in hand. Ignoring Bonner’s instructions to get back into the vehicle, Mike walks towards the body of the child, stops, then pulls out his camera and takes a picture. The scene ends on a close shot of Hank behind the wheel of his truck, recalling in his head his final phone conversation with his son, heard at the beginning of the film.

This video, capturing the source of Mike’s war trauma, not only provides Hank with clues for his investigation, it also acknowledges the importance of these visual testimonials in preserving a historical and national memory of the Iraq War experience. Mike’s video is an artifact of the war, one that encapsulates one history within the broader set of histories, without the need for any accompanying anti-war commentary track or insert shots to provide context. Here, the imagery contains the same form of condensed history found in Civil War photographs; only in this case it is delivered through the digital technology used in contemporary targeting, surveillance, and representation.

Scenes of pathos, according to the “Mobilization of Emotions in War Films” project the Freie Universität Berlin started in 2008, situate the spectator in a world of shared sentiments in order to mobilize emotions through audio/visual strategies. The project identifies many different categories of pathos scenes, “assigned to different realms of affect,” but there is one category in particular that I see exhibited in both Civil War photography and contemporary war films: the appearance of authenticity used to create a sense of shared memory and shared suffering.[13] In this mode, the factualness implied by Civil War photography and digital videos in contemporary war cinema elicits an emotional involvement. During the Civil War, photography was seen as more accomplished at generating both support for the war and outrage in response to its atrocities than sketch illustrations.[14] Brady’s camera, according to Jeff Rosenheim, was not merely a tool for documentary but rather a “corrector of poetics”; Civil War photography addressed the indulgence of painters and sketch artists, and at the same time it deepened their poetic potential with the promise of truthfulness.[15]  In contemporary war films, such as In the Valley of Elah, visual nods to the use of small-scale digital imaging in combat zones are used to strengthen the spectator’s emotional investment in the war story. These films acknowledge viewer familiarity with an online video community, performing a generational revision of the war film form that seeks to correct the inadequacies of earlier modes. The soldier videos in these films not only elicit spectatorial engagement, they acknowledge the role that “rage, panic, and automatic reflex” plays in combat situations, identifiable human emotions that are rendered more subjective through small-scale digital modes.[16] On the one hand, this can be read as a generational improvement over Civil War photography, one that has repeated itself numerous times throughout the history of cinema. On the other hand, there is still the retention of a pathos formula and the ability to render history into fragments.


Trafton Fig 5

Fig.5. The shell-shocked face of the War on Terror: Maya (Jessica Chastain) in the final shot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012).


In an interview for Modern Art Notes, Jeff Rosenheim, the curator for the 2013 “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, notes a striking difference between soldier photographs taken at the beginning and end of the Civil War. The soldiers photographed at the end of the war had, in the parlance of the time, “seen the elephant”; their faces did not show fear or pain but rather a hollowness.[17] In the final scene from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), it is shown that the film’s main character has “seen the elephant” as well (fig.6). Bigelow’s film, chronicling the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in a style that many critics have characterized as a semi-documentary approach, ends with the film’s protagonist, Maya, boarding a plane to leave Afghanistan after the Navy Seal Team 6 operation on May 2nd, 2011. The pilot asks Maya where she wants to go. She gives no response and looks straight into the camera in the film’s final shot, exuding the emptiness found at the end of a decade-long manhunt. Here, Bigelow summarizes an experience of the War on Terror in a single shot, inviting the spectator to partake in a shared suffering, much like the photographs of the Civil War soldiers who had “seen the elephant.” The shot also writes a history of contemporary conflict that can act independently of exterior commentary or a linkage to the broader chain of events. Maya’s near-death experiences, loss of loved-ones, and the feeling of emptiness after years of obsession are written on her face in a single shot where only Alexandre Desplat’s soft, delicate score can be heard. This final shot can be read as a touchstone of contemporary war cinema retention of the representational principles that the Civil War photographers left to history: the combining of pathos with a small, yet emotive, stand-alone moment in history.


[1] The collodion process, which overtook the original daguerreotype process by the 1850s, was method for developing photographs in which a mixture of chemicals is poured onto a glass plate and then placed in a silver nitrate solution in a darkroom.

[2]Jonny Weeks, “Ed Drew’s Afghanistan: the first wet-plate conflict photos in 150 years,” The Guardian, July 22, 2013, accessed May 26, 2015,

[3]Richard Lowry. “Dead Bodies and a Standing President: Alexander Gardner’s ‘Terrible Reality’” in the Interdisciplinary Symposium on Violence/Crisis, Joint Degree Program, St. Andrews and William and Mary. (St. Andrews, United Kingdom:University of St. Andrews, May 15-17 2013) 12.

[4]Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 96.

[5]Hermann Kappelhoff. “For Love of Country: World War II in Hollywood Cinema at the Turn of the Century” (2012; currently unpublished, with permission from the author), 2.

[6] Alan Trachtenberg. Reading American Photographs. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 74-75.

[7] Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007), 177.

[8]Elisabeth Bronfen, Spectres of War: Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict. (New Brunswick, NY: Rutgers UP, 2012), 20.

[9]Kappelhoff, “For Love of Country,” 2.

[10]Bronfen, Spectres of War, 20.

[11] Garrett Stewart, “Digital Fatigue: Imagining War in Recent American Film,” Film Quarterly, 62:4 (2009), 45.

[12]Patricia Pisters, “Logistics of Perception 2.0: Multiple Screen Aesthetics in Iraq War Films,” Film-Philosophy, 14 (2010), 242.

[13] For further information, visit the “Mobilization of Emotions in War Films” project at:

[14]William Fletcher Thompson. The Image of War: The Pictorial Reporting of the American Civil War. (New York: T. Yoseloff), 1960. 69.

[15]Jeff Rosenheim, “Civil War Photography,” Modern Arts Notes Podcast. Broadcast date: January 1st, (2013).

[16]Pisters,  “Logistics of Perception,” 243.

[17] Rosenheim, “Civil War Photography”.


Notes on Contributor

John Trafton is a Film Studies academic and writer with a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. The primary focus of his work is on how cinema reimagines history and current events. His forthcoming monograph, The New American War Film, explores how contemporary American war films are constructed in relation to previous war film cycles. He has also published in Bright Lights Cinema Journal, The Journal of War and Cultural Studies, Frames Cinema Journal, and the Journal of American Studies in Turkey. Originally from Southern California, John also holds a MSc. in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh and a B.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University.



Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Spectres of War: Hollywood’s Engagement with Military Conflict. New Brunswick, NY: Rutgers UP, 2012.

Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

Kappelhoff, Hermann. “For Love of Country: World War II in Hollywood Cinema at the Turn of the Century” (2012; currently unpublished, with permission from the author).

Lowry, Richard. “Dead Bodies and a Standing President: Alexander Gardner’s ‘Terrible Reality’” in the Interdisciplinary Symposium on Violence/Crisis, Joint Degree Program, St. Andrews and William and Mary, May 15-17, 2013. University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, United Kingdom.

Pisters, Patricia. “Logistics of Perception 2.0: Multiple Screen Aesthetics in Iraq War Films”. Film-Philosophy, 14 (2010): 232–252.

Rosenheim, Jeff. “Civil War Photography”. Modern Arts Notes Podcast. Broadcast date: January 1st, 2013.

Stewart, Garrett. “Digital Fatigue: Imagining War in Recent American Film.” Film Quarterly. Summer 2009, Vol 62, No. 4: 45-55.

Thompson,William Fletcher. The image of war: the pictorial reporting of the American Civil War. New York, T. Yoseloff, 1960

Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Weeks, Jonny. “Ed Drew’s Afghanistan: the first wet-plate conflict photos in 150 years.” The Guardian, July 22, 2013. Accessed May 26, 2015.



The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990).

In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007).

In the Year of the Pig (Emil de Antonio, 1968).

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012).

Sands of Iwo Jima (Allan Dwan, 1949).

Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998).

The Scot Who Shot the American Civil War (Andy Twaddle, 2012).

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).