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"A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep" – Haunting Civil War Photograph by Alexander Gardner

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A lifeless body lying on a plush earth with jagged rocks protruding from it, while light bleed frames the shot of the rifle just above the male’s upper torso, is the photograph I chose for this analysis paper. A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep is an image taken during one of if not the most important time in American history. A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep is a part of the Incidents of the War series printed and partially photographed by Alexander Gardner. Alexander Gardner was an American Civil War photographer. Most commonly known for his portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Gardner was born in October of 1821, in Scotland to an educated family. According to NWE Gardner’s interests in photography peaked in 1851 upon seeing Mathew Brady’s work on the American Civil War, sending him down the wormhole that is photography, moving to the United States in 1856 and began working for Brady till 1862.

The Civil War begins, a war where north fight to keep the union together and for the freeing of slaves, while the north fought for the succession from the north and keeping slaves. Gardner splits with Brady a year before the war officially began, and begins to follow general Ambrose Burnside, as well as general Joseph Hooker throughout various battles according to the New World Encyclopedia. According to the Museum of Modern Art a Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep was shot at the battle of Gettysburg, with a casualty count of about fifty-one thousand deaths.

Alexander Gardener was an expert of the wet-plate Process, and invented the imperial photograph, involving a 17 x 21-inch albumen silver print (NWE). When looking at A Sharpshooter Last Sleep the yellowish tinge give a hint of the albumen printing method used. Lighting appears to be afternoon sun, as I do not see any shadow casting to the side of any objects, rather it seems the shadow are being casted downward. Gardner appears to have also used a shallow depth of field. With finesse as the foreground, background, camera left and right or slightly out of focus, creating a vignette of blur. That focus the viewers’ attention to the focal point emanates in-between lifeless body’s head and his rifle. The ISO speed of wet collodion according to Fstoppers is about 5, therefore pushing for slightly longer exposure times. The shutter speed for a Wet collodion process is slow by today’s standards, but in the era of daguerreotypes the shutter speed is fast. Being that the Gardner was shooting a lifeless body gives him the freedom of a longer exposure time, as the subject will not move. I believe because of the longer exposure time and the way in which the plate was secured to the camera. The image has traces of light bleed around the edges, as well as degradation. Which I find to be very appealing, a Vignette created by time, of which no print is destined to be the same.

I feel Gardner has a great sense of composition as he placed the lifeless body on a third. The rifle act like a sort of barrier that keeps the viewer from looking away. The rocks just above the lifeless body are placed on the upper thirds, and are shaped in an arrow that points downward toward the body. Which also holds true for all other debris in the shot, the rock on camera right pushes to toward the center rock which then point downwards, to the camera left the horizontal rocks do the same. When looking at how the light sets up the shot, both the rock on the upper third and the body on the lower third stand out. The rock on top point downward to the focal point, in which you see the male body and rifle illuminate out of the dark earth. As if he is trying to forewarn the viewer of the dangers of war. Their also seems to be a pattern happening between the rocks in which they are alternating angles between them. The body becomes a part of the alternating angles there insinuating the he too has been set in history’s stone. The pattern also reminds me of how teeth alternate angles as a way to cut through meats and plants. I believe the tonal range for is time is really good because of it you are able to distinguish the different textures. The texture of the grass on the earth seems to be reaching up, trying to take the body into which it came.

Upon doing this research I started to come upon many articles that criticized a lot of Gardner work as well as many Civil War photographer. Criticism that stemmed from the fabrication of many photos. In Scott Fink Article about Gardner’s A Sharpshooters Last Sleep the dead male as well as the rifle in the photograph was brought into question, as the male is believed to be in the another photo taken approximately 30 yards away. Also adding that the gun in the photograph is not a gun a sharpshooter would have. Explaining that the original gun was likely to have been taken be people after the battle as a memento. Therefore, saying that Gardner fabricated the shots, both moving the body and guns 30 yard. As a result, has brought into question all his other work, which then brings into question a bigger topic about a photographer’s duty to uphold the truth. I feel especially as a photojournalist he is a higher degree of integrity that must be held in order to maintain trust with the viewer. Which then bring into view society’s views on photograph in which almost everyone believe them to be the highest form of truth.

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“A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” – Haunting Civil War Photograph by Alexander Gardner. (2019, September 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from
““A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” – Haunting Civil War Photograph by Alexander Gardner.” GradesFixer, 13 Sept. 2019,
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