Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Alexander Gardner, one of the Civil War's most important photographers, tracked the changes sweeping the western United States during the late 1860s.
After the Civil War, new railroads began moving in and Native Americans began being pushed out. And as the wartime he had photographed gave way to rebuilding, Alexander Gardner was there to document the changes taking shape west of the Mississippi River.
The Scottish-born photographer, best known for his devastating depictions of Civil War battle sites, was sent out West for two separate jobs in 1867 and 1868: to survey the land that would soon change thanks to an expanding Union Pacific Railroad, and to document ongoing Indian peace negotiations. It's a body of work that few, if any, photographers of his time were able to match.
The results of both missions are now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, in an exhibit titled Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867–68. Organized into two sections, part one, "Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad." shows the vast and sparsely developed landscapes that Union Pacific planned on changing with a new route that would travel from Kansas to the Pacific Ocean. Part two, "Scenes in the Indian Country," shows Native tribes and and U.S. officials as they gathered in Fort Laramie, Wyoming to conduct peace treaty negotiations.
Based in Washington, D.C., during much of his career as a photographer, Gardner developed connections with military and government personnel through the 1860s, taking photographs for his boss, Matthew Brady, the U.S. Topographical Engineers, and the Union army. Gardner also photographed Lincoln several times during his presidency—and later, the execution of the conspirators to Lincoln's assassination.
A socialist and investor in an Iowa commune, Gardner brought an egalitarian approach to his work. As National Geographic writer Melody Rowell points out, some of Gardner's portraits show tribal leaders standing and white men sitting, a gesture that could be seen by politicians back in Washington as being too submissive. Gardner also made a point of getting each tribal member's name for each photo. "He doesn't take images of tribal leaders as if they're are specimens of a type," notes exhibit curator Jane Aspinwall. "He was very aware of his composition."
The railroad expansion that took place through the second half of the 19th century advanced the economic and political goals of white industrialists and government officials. Gardner, however, saw railway expansion as a potential bridge between native tribes and the men displacing them. One of his survey photos, Aspinwall notes, shows a slaughtered soldier laying on the ground alone. "He uses the dead body in the photograph to make the point that the railroad was necessary." With new, faster ways for people to reach one another across the country, perhaps natives and settlers could co-exist one day.
Despite a career of documenting man at his worst, Gardner kept envisioning a better future.
Author's note: As the Nelson-Atkins Museum notes at their exhibit, some of the photo captions (assigned by Gardner, Peace Commissioners, or survey members) use 19th century terminology no longer considered acceptable today.
Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867–68 is on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, through January 11, 2015.