Jane L. Aspinwall on Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner is deservedly famous for his photographs of the American Civil War, though his body of work includes images taken both before and after the war.  A current exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and its accompanying catalogue, deal with Gardner’s western photographs taken in 1867 and 1868.  Here, author and curator Jane L. Aspinwall offers insight into some of the unifying themes of the photographs Gardner took during this time.

Jane L. Aspinwall–

After the completion of Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs (2012), my mind and my eyes continued to look westward. As I approached the project of Alexander Gardner’s 1867–68 work, I became intrigued with the idea of Gardner as a railroad photographer. Looking through the images from Gardner’s Across the Continent series, I was surprised how different his work was from O’Sullivan’s, including very few images devoted strictly to the terrain itself. O’Sullivan focused on the geological formations he encountered on his journey through the west, as dictated by the mission of the survey and the interests of Clarence King, the geologist in charge. O’Sullivan seldom photographed people and very rarely made pictures of the native tribes he encountered. In contrast, Gardner’s images are full of people: railroad workers, military personnel and their families, settlers, native tribes, staff members, all the people that he met along the way.

Gardner was a people person. He was prone to strong feelings and opinions, and stubborn in a productive sort of way. His kindness and concern for his fellow man was at the root of who he was; an admirer once said “his chief desire was to convince the understanding, arouse the conscience, and affect the heart.” An immigrant from Scotland, he was smart and had a head for business and innovation. He appears to have had success in a number of ventures in Scotland, working first for a jeweler and later as the editor of the Glasgow Sentinel. He was greatly affected by the realities of the working poor in Glasgow and devoted not only the mission of his newspaper, but much of his life, to the betterment of his fellow man.

Gardner’s images for his Across the Continent series (1867–68), taken along the existing rail line through the state of Kansas and on to the proposed route to the Pacific Ocean, emphasize the ease of future railroad construction and the region’s potential for economic development. But he was also conscious of the ongoing issues caused by the rail line, and looming potential problems as it advanced through the Midwest and beyond. Familiar with the atrocities caused by war, Gardner had undoubtedly heard about or seen the violent conflicts between the Plains Indians, and the settlers and military personnel.

Gardner’s series is interspersed with images that suggest his belief in the possibility of successful accommodation of both the American Indian and the settler populations. Intending to portray peaceful Indian/settler coexistence, he photographed school groups in which settler and Indian children stood side by side, and friendly interactions between military families and native tribes. Tidy Indian farms on reservation land were nearly indistinguishable from those of settlers. Implicit in these views was the message that the railroad would be an equalizer, an instrument for Indian “naturalization.”

Gardner continued to photograph the American Indian in 1868 with his Scenes in the Indian Country series, which documented treaty negotiations between the Plains Indians and the Indian Peace Commission. Unlike the Across the Continent photographs, which were completed over at least a seven month period of time, this series was completed in a matter of weeks. Also, instead of traversing half the continent, Gardner was primarily headquartered on the grounds of Fort Laramie. This allowed him time to fully photographically investigate the daily rituals and customs of the various tribes in attendance—including encampments, burial trees and, of course, the peace proceedings.

Although he did include images of the area around Fort Laramie, Gardner’s best and most important work was undoubtedly of the American Indians themselves. All of these were taken outdoors, often against the distant backdrop of the officer’s quarters—a menacing reminder of the purpose of the visit. Gardner paid careful attention to the posing of larger groups—some tribal peoples stood while others sat in chairs or on the ground. Although most wore the traditional dress of their tribe, there was no attempt to eliminate signs of Western influence: military hat and coat, Western dress, or even an umbrella. Gardner also included subjects that might have been considered peripheral to the purpose of the talks: women and children, even dogs and horses. All of these elements resulted in a relaxed and dignified documentation of the Northern Plains tribes seen through Gardner’s sympathetic viewpoint.

In a relatively short period of time—under a year for both series combined—Gardner covered an incredible variety of subjects serving a multitude of purposes. Although prints from these series are rare, and unfamiliar to many, they represent the most complete and significant documentation of this pivotal moment in American history.


Jane L. Aspinwall is associate curator of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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