The Work of Alexander Gardner
Article extracted from the ACWS Newsletter, by ‘Tink’, 1st Tennessee, August 2001.
Unless you’re a scholar of American history, chances are you’ll never have heard of Alexander Gardner. But you’ll no doubt recognise the Scotsman’s work.
He was Abraham Lincoln’s photographer and the instantly recognisable portrait of the US president is one of his. Paisley-born Gardner was America’s first photojournalist, capturing images of the civil War and Wild West. He was also a spy, counterfeiter and inventor of the police "mugshot".
Gardner started his working life as an apprentice jeweller in Glasgow before quickly moving into the world of finance, then journalism. By 1851 the 29-year-old was proprietor of The Glasgow Sentinel newspaper.
Alexander’s hobby was science and chemistry and that led to him experimenting with photography, the exciting new art form.
He decided this was the way forward and, five years later, set sail for America with his mother, brother, wife and children in tow, talking himself into a job with celebrated photographer Matthew Brady.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Gardner took to the battlefields armed not with a gun but with his bulky tripod-mounted camera.
A horse drawn darkroom on wheels went along too.
He brought the shocking scenes of war home to the public.
Firmly on the side of the Union, Gardner was enlisted into the Secret Service by fellow Scot Allan Pinkerton who later founded the world-famous detective agency which bears his name.
Using his picture-taking as cover, he helped detect military spies among the troops and also photographed maps, documents and potential battle sites for the War Department.
Gardner went on to become the nation’s first cheque counterfeiter - although he did it to prove a point.
A cheque he copied with his camera was presented at a bank and cashed without question.
When he confessed to the bank’s President, a meeting of New York’s leading bankers was called that very day and a plan devised to produce copy-proof cheques.
In a long, varied and distinguished career, Gardner was a favourite with President Lincoln and documented his life right up until the day of his assassination in Ford’s Theatre, Washington D.C. in 1865.
An expedition to the Wild West followed, then a stint with the Washington police department where he devised the "mugshot" system to keep track of the city’s criminals.
Gardner never forgot his roots and was fiercely proud to be a member of the St Andrews Society.Regular meetings were held at the gallery he’d set up in the city, until his death in 1882.
But what became of his priceless pictures?
In 1955 a scrap dealer revealed that early in the century he’d bought 90,000 glass negatives taken by Gardner and various other photographers.
The dealer offered them to newspapers but no-one seemed interested.
So, horror of horrors, those unique, irreplaceable images from the Battle of Gettysburg, of President Lincoln, and of settlers in the Wild West were scrubbed clean and the glass sold.
The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 2001