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Alexander Gardner

Image of Alexander Gardner with his photographic outfit

Photographer.  Born: 1821, Scotland.  Died: Washington, D.C., 1882.

One of the earliest photographic records of the state is a series of stereographs depicting the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. The photographer was Alexander Gardner of Washington, D. C.

Glasgow Sentinel editor Alexander Gardner saw a Mathew Brady photo exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and developed an avid interest in photography. The Scotland native moved to the United States in 1856 and started working for Mathew Brady, eventually managing his Washington, D.C., gallery.

Brady had the idea of documenting the Civil War with photographs, but he needed a way to communicate his idea directly to President Abraham Lincoln. Gardner’s connection to intelligence agent Alan Pinkerton was the key, and permission was granted for Brady’s corps of photographers to follow Union army troops into the field.

Brady’s practice of labeling all work done by his employees as “Photography by Brady” caused many to think that Brady himself took all the Civil War photos for which he became famous. While he did provide the financial and logistical resources that allowed the images to be taken, Brady tended to stay in the Washington office to coordinate his staff’s work as they moved from battle to battle. Gardner photographed the battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Petersburg, developing the images in his traveling darkroom.

In 1863 Gardner and his brother James opened their own studio, hiring several of Brady’s former employees. They published the two-volume Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War in 1866, which included the work of the Gardner brothers and their staff.

Gardner was also known for his photographs of Abraham Lincoln, including the last to be taken of the president, four days before his assassination. Gardner photographed Lincoln’s funeral and John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators at their hanging.

After the war, Gardner was commissioned to survey and photograph the proposed route of the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division. The series of approximately 150 views was entitled "Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad-1867." The photos include street scenes, buildings, geography, local geological attractions, and even a picture of Gardner's photographic crew. Included are views of Ellsworth and Hays when they were less than a year old. There are also numerous views of older cities such as Topeka, Lawrence, and Wyandotte, now a part of Kansas City, Kansas. Gardner was impressed by the broad plains as is evident from titles such as "View embracing twelve miles of prairie" or "The extreme distance is five miles off." The negatives used at the time were glass plates coated with a wet chemical solution that had to be processed within an hour. Photographers had to have a darkroom close at hand. The images are the earliest photographic records of our state. You can view these images at the Kansas Historical Society’s State Archives & Library in Topeka or online at kansasmemory.org.

Gardner left photography in the early 1870s and became the head of the Masonic Mutual Relief Association for the District of Columbia. He died in 1882.

Entry: Gardner, Alexander

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2010

Date Modified: January 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.