William Betcher, Ghosts: Civil War Portraits – Portfolio Competition Winner

September 20 – October 15, 2023

“Dear Sister Eliza, Keep this until I cease to be remembered. If we never meet again, with this in your possession, I will not entirely be forgotten.”
     -Pencil inscription in Federal soldier’s tintype case


        I seek to breathe new life into historical photographs from my own collection to portray the emotions and damage of war. The original three-inch ambrotypes, tintypes, and daguerreotypes were displayed in idealized, decorative cases, a person’s only likeness ever made. But by my removing the copper mattes, a vivid patina of oxidation was revealed – an evocative “backstage” suffused with the energy of time. Through scanning and making composite images, respectful of but different from the original portraits, I have created 24”x30” transparencies adhered to plexiglass. Akin to very large ambrotypes, their ghostlike presence reminds us how grieving families sought tangible evidence of an afterlife through spirit photography.
        Civil War soldiers faced battle when “of military age” meant being at least sixteen, and many enlisted when younger, making even more poignant our uncertainty whether these boys survived the war. A small number of women secretly enlisted and many more mourned a relative killed, or themselves died young through maternal childbirth or war-caused epidemics and malnutrition.