Monday, August 8, 2011

Burns: "SHOOTING SOLDIERS: Civil War Medical Photography By R.B. Bontecou"

[Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography By R.B. Bontecou by Stanley B. Burns, M.D. (Burns Archive Press, 2011) 6 x 6.75 hardcover, 150 illustrations. 168 pp. ISBN:978-1-936002-05-6 $50]

During and after the Civil War, medical photography was recognized as a useful means of documenting the appearance, diagnosis, and treatment of war wounds. In these images, the partially clothed soldier (often directly facing the viewer) was carefully posed to reveal the nature of his injury. One of the best and most prolific practitioners of the art was Troy, New York physician Reed Brockway Bontecou, who treated soldiers at Harewood U.S. Army General Hospital in Washington D.C. His Harewood photographs were collected in several albums.

Fast forwarding to today, ophthalmologist Stanley Burns's Shooting Soldiers is the first of a planned series of titles from the Burns Archive, all intended to showcase Bontecou's pioneering work. In it are the photos of soldiers from 101 regiments that were wounded in the last twelve months of the war in the eastern theater.

The first fifty pages are comprised of text summarizing the origins of medical photography, the directives of the army, and the history of Bontecou's own work. A short biography of the surgeon's life is included, as well as some information about the weapons and battles that led to the wounds featured in the book.

For most readers, the main point of interest of Shooting Soldiers will be the impressive reproductions of the Bontecou album photographs, each accompanied by the soldier's name, unit, nature and anatomical location of the injury, battle where the wound occurred, and discharge date. It appears that all of the subjects survived to be discharged. The hardcover itself is diminutive and almost square in dimension [6 3/4 x 6 in.], with the full page images reproduced in fine clarity on glossy paper.

One thing missing from Burns's work are the words of the wounded men. Coming from an age when medical matters were a much more deeply private matter than today, the thoughts of the soldiers at having their partially nude bodies, mutilations, and injuries permanently exposed to public view would have been interesting to find. Were the soldiers expected to participate, or were they asked to make a voluntary contribution to the advancement of medical science?

Such questions aside, Shooting Soldiers is a beautifully presented compilation of often haunting images that should be of great interest to students of Civil War history and nineteenth century medicine and photography.  One looks forward to the release of future volumes.

[for continually updated information, the Archive also has a blog]

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