Mixed Media

Haunting Civil War images and words form the backbone of a 'Gods and Generals' companion

Haunting Civil War images and words form the backbone of a 'Gods and Generals' companion

February 24, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

Rob Gibson thought he had a short, sweet gig on a movie set.

He'd swoop in for a few days, take a handful of pictures and slip out. At least, that was the plan.

Instead, he developed a project in lockstep with the "Gods and Generals" 2001 shooting schedule.

Of course, Gibson is not an ordinary photographer, forsaking digital gadgetry for 1860s-era authenticity.

As such, the "Gods and Generals Photographic Companion" is not an ordinary text. Pairing the photographer's glass plate images with historian Dennis Frye's narration, the result is a ghostly marriage of words and visuals echoing an era silenced by time.

To wit, only two pictures in the soft-covered tome are authentic photographs taken in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. Placed alongside Gibson's work, the transition is seamless.


"This will transport you into the Civil War," Frye says, "just as easily as the movie itself does."

Gibson's use of wet plate photography - the same methods used by acclaimed photographer Mathew Brady and others chronicling the horrors of the war between the states - fit effortlessly into director Ron Maxwell's epic film, which opened Friday in theaters nationwide.

A veteran of Maxwell's earlier Civil War tale, "Gettysburg," and a friend of Jeff Shaara's, whose historical novel is the source of "Gods and Generals," Gibson was invited on set to expose actors including Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall.

Quickly, interest in his work amongst cast and crew grew.

"It's almost a validation of the character, a validation of the set people, the makeup people. When they saw the image on a glass plate and said 'Oh, my, it does look like the Civil War,'" Gibson says. "That's not Robert Duvall. That's Robert E. Lee. They're seeing themselves as they haven't seen themselves before, and I think it was such a kick to these actors they wanted to see more and more."

During his time with the production, Gibson took 200 images, each 10 minutes in the making, not counting print time. At his disposal was an arsenal of four cameras and 75 period lenses, as well as an on-site darkroom.

Thanks to the volatility of chemicals needed for the process, every few days he would speed back to his Gettysburg, Pa., studio, whipping up another batch before dashing back to the film's locations to take another set of plates. Each image required an exposure time of three to 10 seconds.

Not surprisingly, Gibson likes to say plying his craft requires the mind of a chemist, eye of an artist and patience of a saint.

He required a steady supply of each while negotiating the hurry-up world of movie-making.

"It's tough at times. You're working with 1860s technology, and it doesn't move at the speed of Hollywood," Gibson says. "You're running in, you're getting the shot and getting out of the way because they're spending millions of dollars and are not wanting to stand around for some guy with 1860s technology."

Often, improperly mixed chemicals or a sudden shift of movement would distort meticulously planned photos. Just as frequently, the perfect image fell by the wayside as time marched on.

In this way, life on the "Gods and Generals" set mirrored that of photographers in wartime. Without the live ammunition, of course.

"Most of these photographs are one of one. You got one shot to do this, you don't have a roll of film," Gibson says. "Photojournalism is, many times, missed opportunities, so I think it's so important when just at the right millisecond the photographer is there and had the right exposure and captured that point in history."

Frye, the film's associate producer, approached his text with care, using historic quotes, poetry and verse to provide an accessible entry into the Civil War.

Designed as a simple, quick read, his most difficult task was to cut out the techno babble only true aficionados might grasp.

"It gives the reader chronology, but more importantly, it gives the reader a feel for the period," Frye says. "This book is designed to attract the heart and the soul, but we do have enough history to give people the story."

As a boy, Gibson loved looking at Civil War photography, captivated by brown and sepia images evoking another time and place.

"They had a surrealism to them that does not look like it is of this time," he says. "The photographic process gave all this almost a lunar landscape type of thing. Things looked desolate, dead."

Pleased with the photographic companion, the photographer is eager to undertake similar projects. Already, he has supplied another upcoming Civil War epic, "Cold Mountain" starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, with images taken in his studio.

"There are a lot of idiosyncrasies in the process. It's not like putting film in your bag and running off to shoot," he says. "This is the closest thing I've ever seen, our chemicals and cameras, to a time machine."

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