[Alexander Gardner, et al] | The definitive collection of photographs of the American Civil War

Auction Closed

January 24, 03:16 PM GMT


90,000 - 120,000 USD

Lot Details


[Alexander Gardner, et al]

Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War. Washington, D.C.: Philip & Solomons, 1866

2 vols, oblong folio. 100 albumen photographs (each plate 6 ¾ by 8 ¾ in. or the reverse) printed by Alexander Gardner from negatives by himself, James Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, David Knox, John Reekie, William R. Pywell, D. B. Woodbury, W. Morris Smith, Barnard & Gibson, and Wood & Gibson, each on a two-toned mount printed with photographer's, printer's, and publisher's credits, and title, date, copyright, and plate number. In gilt-lettered black morocco with gilt-decorative borders and the publisher's gilt monogram, spines with raised bands in six compartments, tooled and lettered in gilt, all edges gilt; a dated presentation, in ink, in a contemporary hand on the front flyleaf.

In presenting the PHOTOGRAPHIC SKETCH BOOK OF THE WAR to the attention of the public, it is designed that it shall speak for itself. The omission, therefore, of any remarks by way of preface might well be justified; and yet, perhaps a few introductory words may not be amiss.

As mementoes of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that the following pages will possess an enduring interest. Localities that would scarcely have been known, and probably never remembered, save in their immediate vicinity, have become celebrated, and will ever be held sacred as memorable fields, where thousands of brave men yielded up their lives a willing sacrifice for the cause they had espoused.

Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.

— Alexander Gardner

Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, the definitive collection of photographs of the American Civil War, is a landmark in the history of photography and in the history of the photographically illustrated book. Recognized from the start as a monument of its kind, the Sketch Book has been praised by historians and photographers alike, including Robert Taft, Helmut Gernsheim, and Beaumont Newhall. Comparing the Sketch Book photographs to the battle sketches that appeared regularly in Harper’s Weekly during the War, Newhall observed, "Gardner’s dead sharpshooter, his long rifle gleaming by his side, is not imagined. This man lived; this is the spot where he fell; this is how he looked in death. There lies the great psychological difference between photography and the graphic arts; this is the quality which photography can impart more strongly than any other picture making" (The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day, 1964, p. 71). Four decades later, cultural critic Susan Sontag commented of the Sketch Book, "To photograph was to compose (with living subjects, to pose), and the desire to arrange elements in the picture did not vanish because the subject was immobilized, or immobile" (Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, unpaginated).

This two-volume set of Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War is remarkable in that it carries a dated, personal presentation, in ink, on the front flyleaf: "To our dear sister Mary / From Sam and Kate / Jan. 1. 1867." The original subscriber of the Sketch Book offered here, with its early presentation, is likely to have been someone of means—someone eager to acquire the set within a year of publication, and someone with more than a casual interest in the conflict. Published by Philip & Solomons, the volumes became available to subscribers near the end of February 1866, and that they were an expensive purchase—at that time, $150 for the pair, or around $2,808 in 2022. 

Although the projected edition of Gardner’s volumes may have been as large as 200, Anne Peterson, Curator of Photographs at the DeGolyer Library and an authority on the Sketch Book, has located evidence of only 90 sets, more than half of which are in institutional collections. In her ongoing census of the Sketch Book, Peterson notes that only a handful of copies with a documented, early acquisition date are extant. The Boston Athenaeum purchased a set in July of 1866, followed by the British Library in May of 1867, and the Library of Congress in 1868. Generals Grant, Sherman, and Meigs owned copies, as did Commodore Matthew Perry, although the dates of these acquisitions are unknown.


NYPL 121; Truthful Lens 68