I had named my camera Polyphemus, after Homer’s Cyclops, for its one poked eye. In the early days of the war, Polyphemus and I took portraits of young men for their sweethearts or mothers. Some did straggle in drunk, posing in uniforms half-buttoned, grinning stupidly as I strapped them to chair legs to keep them still. More often, they arrived with puffed chests, with moustaches grave and neatly combed and eyes shining. I had not thought much about where they were going.
Just before the war came to the farmland and woods surrounding our small town, two Union soldiers appeared at my studio. They were haggard and hurried. One showed a tintype of himself two years earlier, looking hale and clean. Now, a scar slashed from the bottom lid of his left eye, trailing down to the top of his lip, like a tilted crescent moon. His name was Thomas and he wanted a new tintype. His friend stood behind me and sighed impatiently as Thomas shuffled into a comfortable stance. I stamped the back of the tintype with the name of Tompkins & Sons, as required by a law that few of my colleagues followed. Thomas tipped his Union hat before leaving and said, “Do not stay long in this town. Rumor has the Rebels arriving.”
By mid June, the Confederate General Lee found his way to Pennsylvania, followed by the Union army. Within two weeks, the fighting started and I packed up my family when some of our boys hollered that the streets would soon be rioted with Rebels. My Quaker blood stayed me from battle though I prayed for Northern victory. We left our household, took the horses and carriage to my cousin’s apple orchard seven miles off, with bursts of gunfire echoing in our heads.
I should have stayed on my cousin’s land, or at least, left the wife and sons behind in that welcomed shelter. I did not know that the dead now outnumbered us all, four to one. And the wounded, with their torn eyes and shattered legs, draped on kitchen tables and barn floors, would haunt us as they searched for dignity to cover their wounds. I would not take any photographs of that horror, though those documenting war would come by the dozens in the weeks ahead, capturing the bloated men rising out of the blood-soaked farmland upon which they had fallen. It was a necessary thing, compiling this wretched album, but it was not something I could do. Not Polyphemus and me. The newspapermen and photographers would travel to the next battle while we who stayed would watch as the rotting corpses were dug up and moved and buried again. Next year’s spring rains would not let us forget either, uncovering the dead, revealing a femur or skull that refused its bed.
A year after the battle, my neighbor Alphonso stood at my door holding a dirt-covered image he had found at the base of a white oak tree on Culp’s Hill. The crescent scar, sweeping from left eye to lip, shimmered like silver. I put the photo of Thomas in a small wooden box and buried it.
This is what I learned: The camera takes memory and hands it to you, and some day you may smash it against a rock or lay it flat against glass, or you may bury it. But while you pose, it inhales your breath and exhales it as its own. And you are never the same.