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Chapter 2 - Apocalyptic Violence in Visual Media

from Part I - America as Apocalypse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2020

John Hay
Affiliation:
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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Summary

In the middle of the nineteenth century, ambrotype photographs profoundly altered American efforts to make apocalyptic violence resound. The wet-plate collodion negative, which comes into circulation as the Civil War begins, fractures the historiographical medium that conforms martial violence to narratives about historical progress. This paper adds to scholarship on 1860s responses to the early circulation of battlefield, hospital, and candid photographs. On the one hand, bodies on the ground and the material conditions of human scale are revealed with exhilarating clarity; on the other hand, the reproducible plates threaten prose conventions for suturing apocalyptic violence to national regeneration. Periodicals from the 1860s and 1870s record this ambivalence; early historians of the war often wrestled with the ambrotype’s claim to immediacy. This chapter asks where the early collodion plate archive fits in a larger history of American media for translating unthinkable violence into revelatory insight, or for severing that link.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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