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Behind the Backdrop

The Augusta or Portland, Maine, Backdrops

Two backdrops unique to Maine portraits have always been of particular interest to me because of their distinctive appearance. While generally well known in the collecting community as examples that were used somewhere in the state because of the large volume of identified images, the specific location of each is not. In this column, we shall distinguish the two.

Understanding how Maine organized to meet the demands of war is important. Though small by comparison, its contribution was vital to ultimate Union success. A hot bed of abolitionism, Maine citizens responded enthusiastically to the call to arms. More than 80,000 Maine men served as soldiers and sailors, the highest rate of service in the country with respect to its population. Its numbers included two major generals, Joshua L. Chamberlin, the hero of Gettysburg, and Oliver Otis Howard, who commanded the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Two cities were important nexuses for military activity. New recruits and volunteers were chiefly organized in the capital, Augusta. The largest city in Maine, Portland, had a population about 26,000 according to the 1860 federal census, and a bustling harbor.

Considering the flow of troops from the state’s interior to the seat of war, these two cities are strong locations for the backdrops. Proud citizen soldiers, supplied with new uniforms and equipment and encamped in and about these places, would have provided a boon to area photographers.

Surveying soldiers in front of the backdrops

I examined a large number of images in my files and others from online sources for this column. All were tintypes, and the photographers who made them unknown. I found no examples of these backdrops in the ambrotype or carte de visite formats. For purposes of this study, l focused on identified men connected to Maine military organizations. A preponderance of examples supports the assertion that the photographers operated in the state. The service records of these soldiers indicate that Augusta or Portland seem to be the most suitable locations for the backdrops’ location.

One individual whose service demonstrates this conclusion, 18-year-old Charles H. Thompson, served in the 2nd Maine Cavalry. He enlisted in December 1863, and died in New Orleans less than 11 months later. Thompson mustered into service in Augusta, and traveled on to Portland for transport to New Orleans, making Augusta and Portland the only Maine cities he visited while in uniform. Other identified views conform to this pattern.

But which city were the backdrops located, Augusta, or Portland? Perhaps both?

The Backdrops

The backdrops are close in appearance and can be easily confused.

One displays a sailing steamer in a river flanked by forts surrounded by A-frame tents. In the foreground, a large cannon dominates the viewer’s right, and a thin-trunked tree on the left. The tree is not visible in many views because of the angle in which subjects posed. The river winds to the viewer’s left into a mountainous landscape, the picture plane drawn such to convey a sense of distance.

Though the content of the backdrops is common to backdrops used by photographers across the country, the Maine examples have a distinctive aesthetic.

The other also depicts a twisting river, sans steamer, oriented in a similar way and straddled by forts. These forts feature American flags and cannons and A-frame tents. Tents are fewer in number than the other backdrop. In the center of the picture plane, at the base of one of the mountains, sits a large town with buildings of varying heights. Occasionally, a subject is pictured in front of this backdrop holding an American flag vividly colored in red and blue. The combination of the flag and backdrop makes an especially compelling and desirable portrait.

Though the content of the backdrops is common to backdrops used by photographers across the country, the Maine examples have a distinctive aesthetic. They appear comparable to early examples of primitivism. I think it likely that the same person produced both. The drawings appear almost cartoonish and blocky, resulting in a two-dimensional quality that makes them instantly recognizable, at least to my eye. Whether this was a function of the artist’s ability or a stylistic choice remains difficult to know.

It is important to note that the backdrop reflects the environment in which it was used. Just as the Beaufort Backdrop (MI, Autumn 2020) reflected the topography and vegetation of South Carolina’s Port Royal Island, so do these backdrops. The featured river could be the Kennebec, which winds through Augusta. The hilly terrain is reminiscent of the area.

Examples: River and steamer

Clockwise from top: Sixth-plate tintype. Jeff McArdle Collection; Sixth-plate tintype. Jan Pentz Collection; Eighth-plate tintype. Tom Molocea Collection.
Clockwise from top: Sixth-plate tintype. Jeff McArdle Collection; Sixth-plate tintype. Jan Pentz Collection; Eighth-plate tintype. Tom Molocea Collection.

Example: River and forts with flags

Quarter-plate tintype. John Robella Collection.

Quarter-plate tintype. John Robella Collection.

Call to Action

Are you aware of information regarding a backdrop’s location and/or photographer that’s never been published? Is there a particular backdrop that’s stumped you for years? Do you have an idea for the next subject to explore? If so, I am happy to receive comments and suggestions. While this column will initially categorize different observations and connect newly learned material, a much more broad focus will be its ultimate goal. I hope to eventually study regional trends and aesthetic differences in the work of the artists who produced backdrops. An investigation of these more general topics depends upon a vast assemblage of information, and I am indebted to the many kind collectors and readers who have already contributed to this effort. Please reach out with what you know or hope to know!

Adam Ochs Fleischer is passionate researcher of Civil War photography and an admitted image “addict.” He began collecting in high school and quickly became obsessed. He lives in Chicago, Ill.

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