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Unadorned Backdrops

Photographers in camp and other temporary locations usually left their elaborately painted backdrops at home in the studio. Big and expensive, these scenic environments were not desirable travel companions. Camera operators instead used what they had on hand—canvas, sheets and blankets—as makeshift backgrounds. A survey of selected soldier portraits shows how they were used.

Indoor studio

Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Dan Binder collection.
Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Dan Binder collection.

Standing on a wood plank floor with a simple sheet covering a whitewashed wall, this New Hampshire infantryman carries a Model 1842 musket. Note that the bayonet is attached backwards—an attempt to compensate for the reversed image, which was a technical limitation of the time. Also noteworthy is the way his modest clip-point knife is attached to his waist belt: The sheath is reversed so that the metal clip, usually hidden behind the inside of the belt, appears visible.

Outdoor studio

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Dan Binder collection.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Dan Binder collection.

The short sheet used as a background in this image reveals what may be the side of a building. The bare ground below the federal infantryman’s shoes indicates that the photographer worked outdoors. Between the edge of the sheet and the exterior siding is a musket, perhaps a prop, and an extra cast iron head clamp. Another clamp is being used to steady the soldier.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Ronn Palm collection.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Ronn Palm collection.

Mud and leaves

A saber-wielding Ohio cavalryman, left, stands with mud-caked boots amid clumps of leaves and organic material strewn about the wood floor of this photographer’s set. To add insult to injury, the trooper propped his Sharps Carbine up against the pristine sheet used as a backdrop.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Paul Brill collection.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Paul Brill collection.

Sign of a portable setup

The backdrop in the above image of this Union enlisted man, composed of canvas or another heavy material, has been carefully tacked to the walls of this corner space. A leather strap is visible on one side of the backdrop—it may have been part of a portable setup. An unidentified item that pokes out from the bottom corner may be part of the same setup. The soldier stands at “Order arms” with basic accouterments and a pair of non-federal issue leggings. Most likely, they were purchased privately or issued by the state.

Out of the rain, into the studio

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Dan Binder collection.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Dan Binder collection.

Muddy brogans, puddles on the wooden floor and a water-stained backdrop suggest that this federal had a wet day in camp. This private may have posed for his photograph as much to escape the rain as to have a portrait for his family back home. His weapons appear to be a Springfield rifle musket and a Smith & Wesson pistol.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Don Carter collection.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. Don Carter collection.

Edged in wood

The photographer who lugged around this backdrop wrapped the bottom edge of the material around an unfinished wood plank visible to the far left, where the image meets the mat. The material is likely attached to the back of the plank, making it appear smooth compared to other backdrops that display visible signs of tacks or nails. The only obvious imperfection is a severe water stain—a minor flaw that does not detract from the two federals pictured front and center.

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Ronald S. Coddington collection.

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Ronald S. Coddington collection.

Tablecloth backdrop

An infantryman, below, staring intently off-camera sits in a finely woven cane chair, on a crude, wood-planked floor, framed by a tablecloth. The presence of a greatcoat indicates he may have come in out of the cold of a winter camp.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. The Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer. The Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress.

Small-scale studio

Although no larger than a closet, the window makes this space ideal for the photographer’s art. This early-war federal corporal is armed with a Model 1816 conversion musket, Bowie knife and Colt revolver, which casts a shadow on the sheets used as a backdrop. His thin civilian belt is non-regulation.

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