‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ – Emily Dickinson

“Spectators watching the fight between Hood and Thomas at Nashville, Tennessee, December 15, 1864”, Jacob Coonley

The Battle of Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States Civil War, lasted two days. It was fought over December 15 and 16, 1864. It represented the last of the large scale fighting in the war.

Over those two days, almost ten thousand combatants are known to have died – some six thousand Confederates and a little over three thousand Unionists.

In this photograph, taken on the first day of the battle, the photographer Jacob Coonley chooses not to place his camera and tripod amongst the spectators, which would have given him a clear view of the battle field below, but behind them.

In the distance beyond the onlookers, through a haze of smoke, we can just about make out the chaos and detritus of the battle field. We can only begin to imagine what those spectators are hearing and seeing from the relative safety of their raised vantage point. Some seem oblivious to Coonley’s presence, or do not wish to be identified, while others look directly towards the camera.

During the Civil War, a market developed for photographs of scenes from the war. Certain photographers became very wealthy selling images of scenes of the gory aftermath of battles; scenes which were often enhanced (faked) for compositional effect. It was deemed acceptable to display these images in your home.

Coonley’s image is not strictly one of these. It was intended simply as documentary evidence of what was happening and was not meant for mass reproduction and resale.

The photograph raises as many questions as it answers. All present are male. Why are they there? Why are they spectating the slaughter taking place below? Two of the figures seem to be in military uniform – why are they not involved in the distant battle?

Those of us who have witnessed the uninterrupted coverage of the Twin Towers in 2001 or more recently, the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, have had reason to question what it is we are participating in, albeit from the safe remove of living-room television.

What is happening in the world of Coonley’s photograph is different. What reason do these men have to look on? In modern warfare, where all people are fair game, this would not happen. Have they a different moral compass to us? Or is it the case that we would all behave in the same way given the chance?

The snap-shot aesthetic of Coonley’s photograph only adds to its simple directness. The movement of some of the figures, caused by a long exposure, gives it a ghostly, surreal quality which almost allows us to disassociate ourselves from that time and place, but not quite. One can almost imagine a “caught in the act” guilt on the part of some who have acknowledged, by turning to look at the camera, that they have been witnessed bearing witness, so to speak.

During the emergence of Modernism in the nineteenth century, much was made of painting’s ability to create a truth that was higher and more universal than that of photography. The Symbolists, for example, spoke of emotional truths being of greater value than factual truths. Jacob Coonley’s photograph, in its simple directness, shows that a photographic truth can open a Pandora’s box of questions which may lie beyond the capabilities of painting.

This photograph has an almost naive subtlety – it requires a caption to make any sense at all of what is happening. But, Coonley’s image hints at many things, and it tells some truths, but it tells them slant.