Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bob Zeller laser-focused on Maryland Campaign photography

Bob Zeller, who lives in North Carolina with his wife Ann, with a portion of his Civil War photo collection.
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A former print reporter, Bob Zeller still may have a little newspaper ink flowing through his veins. He may also have Antietam in his DNA. Zeller, co-founder and president of The Center for Civil War Photography, has one of the world's more impressive collections of images from the 1862 Maryland Campaign.

Zeller's connections to Antietam are deep: He was raised in the Church of the Brethren, the Dunkers. When he was 10 in 1962, he even attended the re-dedication of Dunker Church at Antietam.  His uncle, Rev. Harry K. Zeller, Jr., a leading Brethren pastor, gave the sermon at the service. Zeller's grandmother's great uncle was Samuel Poffenberger, who owned an historic battlefield farm.

Zeller, one of the country’s leading authorities on Civil War imagery, is author of several ground-breaking books in the field, including The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography. The Washington, D.C. native pioneered the modern presentation of stereoscopic Civil War photography with The Civil War in Depth, the first 3-D photo history of​ the war, and The Civil War in Depth Volume II.  His latest book, Fighting the Second Civil War (2017) is a history of battlefield preservation. (Full disclosure: I was an editor for the book. I also am a CCWP board member.)

In this Q&A, Zeller reveals how he got started collecting Antietam images, the story of  his greatest photo find, what he'd like to ask famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner and more.

In 39 years of collecting, Bob Zeller has acquired 21 large plates and 67 stereo views or half-stereo prints
 of the 1862 Maryland Campaign.
A simple question: Why do you collect Antietam images?

Zeller: My personal Antietam connections drew me to it. My middle name, Otho, probably originated from Otho J. Smith, who owned the farm where Alexander Gardner photographed a Confederate field hospital. And for many years, our family owned a cabin on Red Hill overlooking the battlefield.

Dunker Church during its reconstruction in the early 1960s. Bob Zeller 
attended its rededication in 1962, when he was 10.
 (National Park Service collection)
When I began collecting in 1980, I was a newspaper journalist, and my interest was in the documentary record of the battle – the photographs by Alexander Gardner, the newspapers of September 1862 and soldier letters. The first great series of American war photographs are Gardner’s Antietam photos and arguably the best newspaper story from the war was George Smalley’s dramatic account of the battle in the New York Tribune on Sept. 19, 1862. After acquiring a lot of 13 Gardner Antietam images in 1984, I began to focus more on the photography and decided to try to acquire vintage albumen prints of all of Gardner’s images from the Maryland Campaign – about 85 stereo images and about 35 large plate, 7x9 images. In 39 years, I have assembled 21 large plates and 67 stereo views or half-stereo prints. The stereo views of Antietam are among history’s first numbered, collectable cards. So, I literally have a checklist for them, like I had for baseball cards as a kid.

Antietam stereo views in Bob Zeller's collection. 
How did you start?

Zeller: In the late 1970s, ads for Civil War antique dealers began showing up in my Civil War Times Illustrated, including one for D. Mark Katz, who was a dealer of Civil War photography. I made an appointment to visit him at his home at Lake Heritage in Gettysburg on Oct. 28, 1980. That visit was a life-changing revelation. His living room was like a museum of Civil War photography. He had a portfolio filing cabinet that contained Gardner’s two-volume Sketch Book of the Civil War and Barnard’s Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign. On the wall above his couch was a beautifully framed copy of the Sketch Book print of a Signal Corp officer at Antietam, peering through a telescope toward the battlefield from a signal station that had been on our own Red Hill.

But my jaw hit the floor when he pulled out a stereo view of Bloody Lane on the Antietam battlefield. I was familiar with the photo but had never seen it like this. The card looked older than any stereo card I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it. How could I not know about this? My first antique was a stereo viewer, for crying out loud, which I bought more than 15 years earlier at about age 12. I’d collected several dozen old stereo views over the years, somehow never encountering a stereo view from the Civil War. I had no firm understanding that they even existed. “Where have these been all my life?” I wondered. I was a bit angry about it. Had I known years earlier, I could have been looking for them. I felt I was late to the game. In fact, I had arrived at a good time, with more vintage material than ever coming out of the woodwork and showing up in dealer catalogs or at shows. Katz was pompous and had little regard for stereo views. On the back of the Bloody Lane he had written the price -- $40 – in blue ink. I bought it, of course. And I was captivated.

In 1993, Zeller purchased images of George McClellan's staff (upper and lower right) on the
 Antietam battlefield during President Lincoln's October 1862 visit. "It was a thrill of a lifetime," he says.
What's your favorite Antietam image, and why is it so special to you?

Zeller: That’s a tough one, because there are about a dozen that are really special, some because of the story behind finding and acquiring them. I made a major discovery in 1993 of three previously unknown large plate images by Gardner from Antietam, and I’d have to say that two of those excite me the most. One is a gorgeous, likely one-of-a-kind mounted large plate print in mint condition showing Burnside Bridge. The other is a group photo of Union General George McClellan’s staff having a cocktail party on the battlefield during the visit of President Lincoln. It’s just an amazing image. It was a private photo – never offered for sale in Gardner’s catalog – showing the officers drinking. A companion image of the same group, taken at the same time, shows no partying whatsoever. That one was offered for sale to the public. I never expected to find Gardner Antietam images that were unknown in our time. It was a thrill of a lifetime. And the incredible drinking scene in this image made the find that much more exciting.

Zeller's prints of images of Union Signal Corps at Elk Ridge, also known as Red Hill. The image at right
has a rough history. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Every collector also has a favorite story about a purchase -- a great find at a flea market, an unexpected discovery in an attic. Tell us about yours.

Zeller: My greatest find as a collector started with a disaster. In 1984, I acquired a mounted print of a Signal Corps detachment at their signal station on Elk Ridge, or Red Hill. It was special because we owned land just down the road on Red Hill from where the photo was taken. And the print was special, too, because it was on a mount that that had a printed title as well as “Gardner, Photographer” at lower left and “M.B. Brady, Publisher” at lower right. This dated the print to 1862, within weeks of the battle, because Gardner and Brady split around the end of 1862 or beginning of 1863. But this print was also in pretty rough condition, so I decided to get it restored and mailed it to dealer/appraiser Cliff Krainik in December 1992. He soon called with bad news. “Your print was basically destroyed in the mail,” he said.

Back then, dealers mailed out illustrated catalogs every so often and it was first come, first served. The moment the catalog arrived in the mail, I’d tear through it. If I found something I wanted, I frantically dialed the dealer’s number, hoping it wasn’t already sold. Those moments as the phone rang felt about the same as the last 10 seconds of a crucial eBay auction today. Anyway, just days before the mail disaster, I had received longtime dealer Len Rosa’s Christmas season catalog, and one item was a Gardner large plate photo of the Middle Bridge on one of those Gardner/Brady mounts. I already owned the image, so I didn’t go after it. But after the disaster, I suddenly wanted that boring photo in the worst way because I would at least have a print on one of those rare Gardner/Brady 1862 mounts. Fortunately, Len still had the image available, so I bought it. “Don’t mail it,” I told him. “I’m coming to Gettysburg on Jan. 2 and I’ll pick it up from you in person.”

Front cover of Alexander Gardner's "Incidents of The War," purchased by Bob Zeller in 1993. 
Rarely had I been as excited about a trip as the one to Gettysburg on Jan. 2, 1993. It was my first opportunity to go to a Civil War memorabilia show since our recent move from California to North Carolina. It ended up being my single most amazing and memorable day as a collector. The day was cold, but clear and sunny, and Len said he’d meet me in front of the Gettysburg Hotel to give me my print of Antietam bridge.

I told Len I was buying it because this other print showing the Signal Corps detachment had been destroyed. He said, “I think I might have that Signal Corps print. I have a portfolio of prints like these at home. I’ll run home and get them.” When he returned, he was carrying a large portfolio cover with “Incidents of the War” hand-stamped in gold letters. I knew that was a Gardner title and that the cover itself was extraordinary.

Inside, disbound but clearly once bound into the book, were eight more prints. As I looked at them one by one, I realized I was seeing Antietam images I had never seen before. The fourth or fifth image was a mint condition copy of the photo I had lost – the Signal Corps detachment! I bought it on the spot.

I was still a casual hobbyist then, at least in my willingness to spend money, and even buying the Signal Corps image was a bit of a stretch. So, I didn’t buy anything else immediately. But over the course of the next few days, I bought six more plates from Len and the cover. Three of the photos were previously unknown and I pitched the story to the Associated Press, which published a national story on the find in 1993.

That day in Gettysburg was insane. At The Horse Soldier, I found two stereo views at bargain prices, including the famous three Rebel prisoners. I left town with a pit of anxiety gnawing at my stomach, because I knew I had to have other photos from that portfolio but that it would cost far beyond what I had ever spent. I told my wife as much. She was fully supportive, as she always has been.

A stack of Antietam stereo views in Bob Zeller's collection. 
Every collector seems to have a "one that got away story." What's yours?

Zeller: The “one that got away” is part of the same story. I ultimately purchased seven of the nine prints, as well as the “Incidents of the War” cover. I did not buy two of the prints. I already had a nice vintage copy of one. But I did not have the other – a large plate of a forge scene at a Union camp at Antietam. I have never again seen a copy of that print for sale. It remains a box unchecked on my checklist of Antietam images. In hindsight, I should have bought the entire portfolio from Len right there in front of the Gettysburg Hotel. I could not imagine walking away from the treasure like that today.

But as I said, I was just a hobbyist then. The discovery, however, was the first in a series of events in the 1990s that transformed my professional career. In 1994, I convinced the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Fla., to do an exhibition of my Gardner Antietam photo collection, which happened the following year.

Bob Zeller is a co-founder of 
The Center For Civil War Photography.
Go here for information on the CCWP
In 1997, Chronicle Books of San Francisco published my first book – The Civil War in Depth: History in 3-D. It was the first book devoted to the amazing 3-D photos of the war. In 1999, while relaxing with a beer at O’Rorke’s in Gettysburg with wet plate photographer Rob Gibson and the late Al Benson, a Confederate reenactor, we hatched the idea of starting a Center for Civil War Photography to display images and teach about the photography of the war.

In 2001, with a push from our other co-founders, Garry Adelman and Chuck Morrongiello, we incorporated the Center and I became president. Since then, we have thrived as a small-but-vibrant, non-profit educational organization. We have created custom 3-D Civil War visual presentations for numerous organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution. We have preserved images digitally by providing the funds to scan them at the Library of Congress, which puts the scans online for all to see and share. And this fall, we’ll hold our 19th annual Image of War seminar in Richmond. It’s amazing to think that all this evolved from a decision many years ago: “I think I’ll collect Gardner’s photos of Antietam.”

Alexander Gardner
Finally, if you could go back in time and ask Alexander Gardner one question about his Antietam images, what would it be and why?

Zeller: I would ask Gardner the one question designed to open his personal treasure chest of memories: “What was it like to photograph the Antietam battlefield?” I’d want to know about it all, so I am certain that first questions would lead to more: Where did he watch the battle from? How did he gain access to the battlefield? In what order did he take the photos? What were his emotions while taking the images? Did he realize he was making photo history? Who was with him? And that would just be for starters.

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.