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Booth (David Robertson)


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  Suddenly I heard the studio door open behind me, and turned to see the ruffian in muddied boots walk out, followed by a man in the uniform of a Union colonel. The colonel was speaking to someone else behind him. "Well, it's settled, then, Captain. We can expect the cartographic work no later than the end of next week."

A barrel-chested, middle-aged man in civilian clothes followed them partly out into the landing. "They'll be ready as I promised," the man said. "There will be no doubt about the results." The colonel nodded, and he and the ruffian walked past me down the stairs.

"You're punctual," the barrel-chested man said to me. "A virtue which is its own reward, but a virtue nevertheless." I stood unable to think of a reply, certain that the man before me was the person I had hoped to work for. In a moment all the felicitous phrases I had rehearsed beforehand fled from my brain. "I'm glad we'll have ample time to talk before my afternoon sittings." He stuck out his right hand. "Alexander Gardner."

Embarrassed, I returned his greeting. Short, stocky, and indistinguishable in his outward appearance from the dozens of merchants and bankers I had seen today on the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue, Gardner was far from the man I had anticipated. I realized I had made a mistake in dressing to make an "artistic" impression upon him. An expanse of ginger-colored whiskers neatly combed down his shirtfront emphasized his businesslike demeanor. He spoke with a noticeable Scottish burr to his voice, and reminded me of a type which I instantly recognized, and dreaded: the Scots merchant, frequently seen at the docks of Baltimore or Richmond, interested only in trade, whether he was engaged in the business of selling slaves, tobacco, or, in this case, photographs. They are seldom interested in the ambitions of artistic young men.

"The waiting was instructive to me, Mr. Gardner," I said. "I passed the time agreeably by looking at your gallery of photographs. I particularly was interested in Mr. Brady's prints of the battle of Sharpsburg."

Gardner looked at me with disdain. "They are popularly known as Brady's prints because he was the first to sell them," he told me. "But I hold the copyright, and I was the photographer on the scene in 1862 at Antietam."

Before I could apologize for my mistake, Gardner seized my shoulder and began to lead me toward the studio door. "We can talk in there," he said. "It's warmer."

Following him inside, my first impression was of walking into a furnace where the walls had become superheated to a blue intensity. An enormous potbellied stove with a blazing fire occupied the center of the long, rectangular studio. I saw now that the entire room was painted a light blue. Mounted on one wall was the largest and most detailed map of northern Virginia and Maryland I had ever seen. It was easily six feet across. I could even make out the spot marked Surrattsville, the hamlet in Maryland where I had been born, and where my father had been postmaster.

Gardner walked briskly across the studio and covered the map with a large black tarpaulin. "You'll not need to be studying that," he said. He then walked to the stove, inspected its grate critically, and turned his backside to it, spreading the tails of his frock coat in front of him for further warmth. "I find the heat accelerates the action of the photographic chemicals," he said by way of explanation, rubbing his hands against the tails of his coat. "And having been reared in Glasgow winters, I've no great fondness for the cold."

Except for a doorway which seemed to lead to a small room above us on the third story, there was no entrance or exit other than the way we had come. It occurred to me that Gardner's studio would be a great firetrap in winter. Pushed to the sides of the studio was a jumble of tables, chairs, and divans, some on top of one another, like an odd lot purchased from an auctioneer. I recognized some of these pieces of furniture as "props" in the photographs outside. Other than the stove, the only object in the center of the room was a rosewood box supported by a tripod about four or five feet in height. Four metal tubes projected from one end of this box, each covered with a brass cap.

Gardner was grinning at me from behind his ginger whiskers. "My four-barreled solar camera, capable of four exposures on one plate. I immediately saw, as some, like Brady, did not, that this patented device multiplied the effects of one operator while greatly reducing the material losses on our side of the business."

Gardner's exuberant arrogance, which I would find off-putting in most people, was strangely appealing, as well. "Rather like the new Gatling machine rifles suggested to the army this year, which, had the military taken my advice and employed in the spring offensive, which it did not, would have ended the war by now." He dropped his frock-coat tails but continued to rub his hands together energetically. "Don't you agree, Mr. Surratt?"

I did not have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

Gardner suddenly began to pace around the room energetically, as if there were a steam engine inside his stocky body that at last had received sufficient heat for locomotion. "But we've come to meet this morning to discuss your possible employment, Mr. Surratt, not the future of the war or the future of photography."

His hands were now busy pulling a sheaf of papers out of the inside pocket of his frock coat. I saw my calling card among them, as well as a number of other papers I did not recognize. "I cannot deny that you've come highly recommended by some of my best patrons," Gardner said. He peered at me over the sheaf of papers. "You say, Mr. Surratt, that you come originally from southern Maryland?"

I had said nothing to him of the sort. "Yes, sir. A small town named for my father, a former Union postmaster."

"And after the unfortunate death of your father, your widowed mother relocated herself to our capital, some two months ago? And you have a brother in the Confederate army, do you not?"

Gardner had not asked me to sit down, or more accurately, to untangle a chair from the stacks against the walls. I remained standing uncomfortably in front of his four-barreled camera while answering his questions. I must admit I found it disconcerting that he knew so much beforehand about my family history. Someone other than Booth had told him extensively about my past. I chose my words carefully.

"Yes, we moved here in October. Like so many others in this tragic war, my family was divided in loyalties. I'm happy to say that my brother is no longer in active service for the Confederate army. My mother is currently settled with the rest of our family here in Washington City, where both she and I run a boardinghouse for a respectable citizenry. One of our boarders is a most loyal and trusted clerk in the U.S. War Department."

"Ah, yes, your mother, a Catholic lady," Gardner said, not taking his eyes off the papers in his hands, "and I see you were educated by priests at St. Charles College. I'll say this for the Roman Church, it instructs its members well, if not wisely." Gardner quickly folded the papers and returned them to his inside coat pocket. He seemed to regard me with a fresh interest. "I understand you write in a good hand, and you're adept at copying out details, whether from ledgers or sketchbooks? You can even reproduce the handwriting of others?"

How had Gardner come to know so much about me? I wondered again. I could see my face reflected in the polished brass circles of the lens caps of the four barrels of his camera in front of me. I replied that what he had heard was true.

Gardner stroked his beard reflectively. "Well, I'll not deny that I'll be needing another hand about the studio. With the victory at the polls this month of Mr. Lincoln's party, I expect to continue to be favored with the patronage of his administration. I am proud to say, very proud, Mr. Surratt, that I have been privileged to have taken more photographic portraits of Mr. Lincoln and members of his cabinet than the owner of any other photographic establishment in Washington City. Mr. Lincoln himself has sat for his portrait several times in this very room. And with the advent of next spring's offensive at Petersburg, I'm certain to find an assistant useful on trips to the field, should you prove able."

I replied that I had always had a great interest in recording a photographic history of the Civil War.

Gardner brought his right hand down possessively at the opposite end of the rosewood box that stood between us. "I take the photographs here, Mr. Surratt." For a moment he seemed to stare at me with a fierce but amused expression on his face. "You've not the slightest idea of what I'll be needing you for, do you?"

Before I could answer, Gardner stepped around the tripod and planted himself in front of me. To my alarm, he screwed his face into a contortion, and in a high-pitched, wheedling voice asked of someone invisible over my shoulder, "Ah, Mr. Gardner, could you not do something about that terrible 'squint' your camera has given my eyes? It quite puts me out of countenance."

"Oh, my dear Mr. Gardner, I fear your shadows have added at least twenty-five years to my age."

It occurred to me that he was caricaturing a procession of his more plaintive elderly customers. Gardner threw back his head and laughed, and then continued in his own voice, "Well, how young would you care to be, madam? I can have my youthful assistant Mr. Surratt here make you twenty-five again, but I fear my reputation would not bear that. Forty-five is as low as I'll go!"

Gardner laughed again, before taking on a serious expression. "There's a skill, John Surratt, an art in presenting objects or people not simply as they appear, nor as they wish to appear, but as they should appear. That's as true for my military work as it is for my civilian portraits. A steady hand in spreading the chemical agents on glass, a pen sharpened into the fine point of a scribe, the judicious application of a piece of holystone upon the emulsion, all are as necessary to my art as a camera and lens."

Gardner seemed to be regarding me already as a retained employee, and my hopes rose. "Do you know, Johnny, what you will be most struggling against here in this studio, and what will be your greatest enemy?"

I shook my head.

"Bombazine!" Gardner thrust his ginger whiskers to within a few inches of my face shouting with such force I thought he was naming another unknown weapon of the Union army.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why, bombazine, man, the cotton and silk fabric, always black, which the ladies insist upon draping around themselves by the yard. The damned stuff is the bane of the photographer's art, and it absorbs light as your blotter paper absorbs ink. It was bad enough when the gentlemen chose always to wear black. But now, with the fashion in ladies' dress, a pretty maiden of twenty who comes to my studio in her best bombazine outfit becomes, without a skillful application of the emulsion or an apt retouching of the negative, a fleshy blob of a face swimming in an inky darkness."

 
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Excerpted from Booth by David Robertson. Copyright © 1998 by David Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.