By Adam Ochs Fleischer
With this issue marking the second anniversary of this column, it seems fitting to stop and assess what’s been accomplished so far, as well as to discuss the column’s objectives moving forward. The task of identifying a backdrop’s location and the photographer who used it is not often an easy one. Such as it is, I am indebted to the collecting community’s support and assistance of the past two years. With a great deal of help, eight backdrops’ locations have now been documented, as well as a wealth of context surrounding them.
At the outset, I put forth the identification of a background’s location as one of the column’s principal aims. This information is of great value to collectors and researchers, as it provides important context to backdrops that might be used to identify subjects who stood before them.
One notable case in which a Behind the Backdrop column successfully aided in the identification of a soldier occurred late last year. A collector discovered a tintype he owned included the backdrop used by photographer John Jones at the Rendezvous of Distribution outside Washington D.C. I featured Jones’ backdrop in the Winter 2020 issue.
Though the subject’s name was written in the back of the case, the collector had given up on positive identification after discovering several men by the same name served during the war. Luckily, only one of them had been stationed at the Rendezvous of Distribution. Bingo! The soldier’s face had a name and a story, after who knows how many years of anonymity.
However, discovering a backdrop’s location is not this column’s only aim. Other important objectives include the examination of their artistry and subject matter and the investigation into where they were produced, and by whom. This retrospective serves as an opportunity to review these subjects in consideration of the backdrops written about over the last two years.
A common theme reiterated many times in this column has been that the content of a backdrop often evokes its studio’s surroundings. A.D. Lytle’s backdrop in Baton Rouge, La., depicts large, neoclassical buildings that not only represented the general milieu of the antebellum South, but also depicted specific plantation homes bordering the city. The Beaufort, S.C., backdrop shows palm trees and other subtropical flora such as you’d find on Port Royal Island. J. Jones’ Rendezvous of Distribution backdrop pictures a vast assemblage of Sibley tents situated near what is likely the Potomac River. The list goes on.
It is useful to examine specific characteristics in period painted backdrops. Such features can be derivative of a particular region or circumstance, and it stands to reason that the backdrop is connected to an area exhibiting those characteristics. For instance, backdrops depicting gunboats on a wide, winding river can be confidently attributed to having been located on or near the Mississippi. There is one known backdrop that shows the nation’s Capitol building with an unfinished dome. Three guesses as to where it may have been located.
There are exceptions. As presented in the last installment, the so-called “Palm Tree Backdrop of Jackson, Michigan” does not conform to the general rule of thumb when interpreting period backdrops. If it needs to be said, palm trees are not, nor have they ever been, endemic to Michigan. This provokes several interesting questions: Was the backdrop produced locally and intended to illustrate a new recruit’s ultimate destination? Or was the backdrop originally produced in a subtropical location, and later brought to Jackson?
I am not yet aware of any primary source describing the production of a backdrop during the Civil War. Some speculate that many were painted over pre-made templates drawn using stencils. Common sense supports this, as many backdrops that we believe were in different studios have a certain family resemblance. A preponderance of examples located in the St. Louis area, for instance, all incorporate the same basic elements, the outlines of which appear to have been drawn in the same hand. This holds true for many backdrops generally thought used by the Army of the Potomac, such as the Warrenton backdrop. Using pre-made templates would have made logistical sense, as backdrops made from templates were likely cheaper and easier to create than entirely original paintings.
However, similarities between certain backdrops might also be attributed to the popularity of common motifs, or to the tendency of a single artist to produce numerous backdrops. The few advertisements that do mention “backgrounds” for sale during the Civil War era do not hint at how they were being produced. One purveyor, S.A. Holmes in New York City, does state in an 1862 newspaper placement that his backgrounds were “made to order.” Yet, it’s unclear exactly what that means. Did he sell pre-made templates painted to order or were they made completely from scratch to the customer’s specifications?
What is clear is that, even if not all backdrops were entirely unique, the market for backdrops was not monopolized by only a handful of firms, as was the case for firearms and cased image components. This does not exclude the possibility that N.E. Allen of Jackson was able to procure a backdrop from a distributor in the Southeast, and offer a possible explanation of his being the only known photographer in Michigan who used a palm tree backdrop.
The possibility of cloned backdrops produced en masse regionally represents a serious problem to this field of study, as it could make it difficult to pinpoint a backdrop’s exact location. Luckily, the majority seem artistically distinct. My intuition is that many backdrop creators made use of basic templates common in their region, but that they also heavily embellished each one to suit the preference of the photographer it was made for.
Two examples certainly produced by the same artist are the “Portland or Augusta, Maine” backdrops discussed in my Winter 2021 column. Their aesthetic styles are so alike that there can be no doubt. And what an aesthetic style. These two deserve special recognition, as they are immediately recognizable. Their primitive, slightly cartoonish, two-dimensional style is rendered in such a way that among all backdrops, these two always stand out.
Most other examples are reliably similar. Many incorporate patriotic motifs and camp scenes, some with horses in motion or sentries on guard. Foreshortening techniques are often employed, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. J. Jones’ Rendezvous of Distribution example is likely the best-executed backdrop studied here thus far. The content in the foreground is impressively situated in the picture plane such that a real sense of distance is conveyed relative to the mountains beyond the camp. The “Tiger Tree of Kalamazoo,” on the other hand, does not correctly proportion its titular tree correctly, as it looms over a supposed camp scene in the distance.
Many backdrops without a patriotic or military theme strikingly resemble the background scenes of the portraiture of past centuries. The ruins of a Greek-style building overlooking a tranquil lake in the backdrop located in Lexington, Mo., (connected to Quantrill’s men) could be confused with the background of the Mona Lisa. It is unclear whether these scenes are in any way symbolic; most people likely found them visually pleasing.
Where do we go from here?
This column will continue to prioritize investigating the location of backdrops and the photographers who used them, especially examples used by the Army of Potomac. As mentioned before, Army of Potomac backdrops have proved particularly challenging to distinguish, as they all appear very similar. The fruit of the labor in doing so should be rewarding, however, as so many exist.
Another significant objective moving forward will be the serious study of the method in which backdrops were produced. If proved that they were made by a handful of regional suppliers, and that a great number are identical, this will have a profound impact on the process of their documentation.
Finally, a future installment will spotlight a backdrop exclusively used by a Southern photographer, which principally features Confederate soldier subjects.
Adam Ochs Fleischer is a 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.
SPREAD THE WORD: We encourage you to share this story on social media and elsewhere to educate and raise awareness. If you wish to use any image on this page for another purpose, please request permission.
LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.
VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.