Photographer exposes Civil War 'ghosts'

October 29, 2000

Photographer exposes Civil War 'ghosts'


photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

Tim JohnsonSHARPSBURG, Md. - For a war that ended 135 years ago, the Civil War still evokes immense emotion.

Photographer Tim Johnson of Falling Waters, W. Va. sees that emotion frequently.

People come to his booth at arts and crafts and heritage fairs and are moved by what they see: Ghostly Civil War figures inhabiting Civil War scenes, bringing to life that long ago conflict in an otherworldly way.

The pictures are so intense that Johnson said he is frequently asked, "Have you really seen these ghosts? Are they real?"

They aren't, of course. They are the creative result of the photographer posing Civil War re-enactors in specific spots and taking double exposures on film, making it appear as though ghosts still dwell in the places where the events took place.


"People come into my booth and start crying," Johnson said. "The first time it happened, I thought somebody had hurt themselves, she was sobbing so loudly. She said, 'I was a nurse in Korea and Vietnam. I know what you're doing here is the Civil War. But the faces are all the same.' When you can touch somebody like that, it's worth every time you're asked, 'Are these real?' Your main goal is to touch people."

"They are extremely interesting, absolutely fascinating," said Marge Hanigan, 54, of Mount Airy, one of many sorting through Johnson's 100 pictures at a recent heritage festival near Harpers Ferry. "The moment comes alive through these ghosts."

"You have a tendency to believe the ghosts are out there," said Kristi Long, 46, of Washington, D.C. "This guy seems to have gotten it through his photographs."

"They evoke a lot of emotions just looking at them," Pat Trefry of 49, of Alexandria, Va. "I think the black and white adds to the historical feel of it."

"I love black and white," said Johnson, 42, a former newspaper photographer who earned an associate's degree in photography from Shepherd College in 1979. He grew up in Frederick County, Maryland.

A longtime Civil War buff, he has a picture of himself as a five-year-old at Christmas with a toy cannon. He remembers consuming Civil War books in elementary school.

In 1978, he and some fellow re-enactors were at Gettysburg when he decided to take a double exposure at the battlefield to see what it would look like. Six years ago, he set up "Living Images" as a business and has been making a living at it ever since. His wife, Teri, runs the business end of the enterprise.

Far and away his best seller is "A Time To Heal," a ghost Confederate and Union soldier shaking hands over a stone wall at Gettysburg. He got the idea from a real picture in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary.

"It's the image of peace," he said. "The Civil War was so terrible." He has pictures from many places and regions of the war, but he couldn't name a favorite image. "They're all my kids," he said.

Like many artists, Johnson also can't readily explain where his art and creativity come from.

"When you see it, you know it and you shoot it," he said.

He has a tremendous respect for the places he shoots and tries to transmit that respect through his work.

"It's not as bad here at Antietam, but you go to places like Gettysburg and you'll see people picnicking on the battlefield, sunbathing at Devil's Den. This is hallowed ground. People died here. Have a little respect. If people can go to a battlefield and get a little respect because of something I've done, maybe I've done some good."

He's never seen any ghosts, but sometimes feels an unseen presence at the scenes of so much death.

"I've never seen anything," he said. "But coming here (Antietam) I've felt things. Coming here in the middle of summer, you'll feel cold spots in the middle of the battlefield. I know your mind can play a lot of things on you. But I don't know how anybody can be here and see this and not feel something."


What: Tim Johnson of Falling Waters, W. Va. runs "Living Images" selling pictures of Civil War ghost-like images over Civil War scenes. The pictures come in sizes 5x7 inches matted to 8x10 ($22); 8x10 inches matted to 11x14; ($38) and 11X14 inches matted to 16X20 ($50). He'll also frame them. Each picture comes with a short explanation of the scene depicted.

Where to reach him: He can be reached at

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