Duke Performances: Setting Rare Civil War Photos To Music

Nov 20, 2014

Duke University recently acquired two stunning sets of photographs of the Civil War. Now, Duke Performances has commissioned a leading guitarist to set the images to music. The result is an intimate perspective on the cost of war.

The pictures were taken by two men, George Barnard and Alexander Gardner. Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War and Barnard's Photographic Views of the Sherman Campaign were both published in 1866 and are now considered "among the most important pictorial records of the Civil War."

Their photos show humanity amidst the ravages of war:

Ruins in Charleston, S.C., from the album Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign
Credit George N. Barnard / David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia, from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War
Credit Negative by J. Reekie, Positive by Alexander Gardner / David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

For the performance, the images will be projected on large screens. Guitarist William Tyler composed a score to accompany them. Tyler will perform the musical score live.

Tyler grew up in Nashville, and he has long had a fascination with the war and its legacy. Kids in the area would collect buttons and other memorabilia from the war. He remembers seeing the photographs for the first time.

"It was late January and it entailed me coming over to Durham and looking through the original photos. It was incredible. I told a friend later, 'I literally handled the most expensive coffee table book ever!'" recalls Tyler. "They are remarkable up-close."

In the 1800s, taking a photograph was not easy:

Photography during the Civil War, especially for those who ventured out to the battlefields with their cameras, was a difficult and time consuming process. Photographers had to carry all of their heavy equipment, including their darkroom, by wagon. They also had to be prepared to process cumbersome light-sensitive images in cramped wagons.  >>Read more about the process.

Tyler says that the complicated procedure caused flaws in the photos, and he's drawn to exploring those flaws. He points to this image of President Lincoln on the battlefield of Antietam as an example:

President Lincoln on Battle-field of Antietam, from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War
Credit Alexander Gardner / David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

At the time the Lincoln photo was taken, the photographic process required subjects hold still for several minutes. The "ghost" on the right side of the image is someone moving during the process. Such "ghosts" captured Tyler's imagination.

"It's way more interesting than Lincoln, no offense to him, but visually those are things that you don't notice unless you are studying the details of the photos, which is something very early on we got sort of obsessed with."

Tyler says that he was also drawn to the examples of people carrying on with their lives when surrounded by destruction. He points to this photo, taken in the ruins of the Norfolk Navy Yard:

Ruins of Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War
Credit Negative by J. Gardner, Positive by Alexander Gardner / David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

"Those photos are the ones  that really  haunt me the most," says Tyler. "Those photos of the death, and all of that, obviously those have the most shock value. But one of the things that really haunts me about all these is that you can tell that the South was a rural place, and you're seeing all of this destruction kind of weaving through this incredible beautiful landscape, and a lot of that landscape hasn't changed at all in 150 years."

Listen to Tyler's conversation with Phoebe Judge. It includes two selections of the music that he composed for the performance.

Corduroy Roads premieres Thursday Nov. 20 as a part of Duke Performances. All shows are sold out.