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About Last Night: Milk Gallery's Civil War Flashback For Soul-Lit

Last night, we partied like it was 1865— literally. With the help of Boo-Hooray, Milk Gallery took a trip back to the days of the Civil War and celebrated the unique time period in American History where the art of photography advanced as the Civil War unraveled. Soul-Lit‘s opening could not come at a more pertinent time, where issues of race relations and confederate iconography are daily topics of discussion.

The exhibit showcases the work of America’s pioneering and revolutionary photographers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, who captured the first images of war, as well as the first portraits of iconic figures like Brady himself, (could it be the first selfie in existence?) alongside Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and Abe Lincoln. But, let’s not forget to mention the soldiers who lost their lives in the war, and are only kept in memory by their Cartes de Visite, which curator Johan Kugelberg says are the Instagrams of their times. The images, which look like mini-poloraids, are keepsake portraits of young men who went off to war– some of which would be “the only trace of people that perished in the war,” as Kugelberg explains. In addition to the poignant photos on display, the exhibit also presented diaries, lockets and game boards plastered with 19th century imagery.

A significant time in America for both photography and human rights, the Civil War was the first war to be documented on film, allowing the public take a glance at the war’s not so picture-perfect realities and finally participate both visually and politically with the violent ongoings of war.

Kugelberg told us, “Any historical artifacts that survive, we should be grateful for. History is not only what happened, it’s also what survived. What we see in this room is how for the first time photography actually documented a major historic event and that is because of the technological progress of photography from the 1820s onwards. The purpose of this show is the human face of war and that we’re not that different. 150 years is a long time, but it also really isn’t. That’s the political act of the show and one of the very powerful aspects of photography as an art form is the immediacy of it. I think now-a-days when photography is hyper-ephermal, because nobody cares about the snapchat from half an hour ago or the instagram post from 3 months ago, we can see how the deterioration of how we preserve imagery is still in effect– even though these images survived because they were kept as treasures."

Unlike other Milk Gallery events, the music was kept to a minimum allowing both art lovers and history enthusiasts to explore the exhibit uninterrupted. The youthful crowd also painted an interesting picture by providing a striking contrast of snap backs and high tops against the grainy shots of soldiers in double breasted coats and muskets in hand that were hanging across the walls.

In an era where we can capture every bit of our lives instantaneously, an exhibit like this helps us appreciate the art of photography, an art that once required heavy equipment and endless patience. Last night made it clear that there’s no time like the present to celebrate the past.

Check out Soul-Lit Shadows: Masterpieces of Civil War Photography at Milk Gallery from July 22nd to August 21st.

Photos courtesy of Zlatko Batistich

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