Winning Photos and Photographers

An Interview with Carl Staub

Two of Carl Staub's photos were selected as winners within the 2012 Civil War Trust Photo Contest. In this interview we asked Carl about his winning photos and his approach to Civil War battlefield photography. See all the 2012 Photography Contest winners here »

Dunker Church
"Dunker Church as a Field Hospital" by Carl Staub

Civil War Trust: You have been an active Civil War photographer for many years.  What interests you in covering the American Civil War as a photographic subject?

Carl Staub: I am, first of all, a great history fan. I have been fascinated by our Victorian era War Between the States since my first visit to a National Battlefield Park in summer of 1963. That, of course, was the Centennial year for Gettysburg. The cast of characters in that conflict surpasses the most imaginative of fiction works and the stories, though well known, remain hair-raising and nail-biting.

One of my favorite Civil War books is "Campfire Sketches and Battlefield Echoes" published in 1890. It captures the flavor of those days from a timeless removed than our own WWII memories. I think that, besides the action tales, what attracts me most to the Civil War era is the proximity of the people of the day. They are far enough removed from our own time to be completely alien in some ways and yet, so close that we easily recognize ourselves in the photographs that peer back at us.

One aspect of the Conflict that never ceases to appeal to me, is the popularization in the day of the Art and Science of photography. Those people who look out at us seem so like ourselves it is always striking. The timeless poignancy of the Gettysburg Yankee sergeant dying with an ambrotype of his children clutched to his breast speaks as well to our own time. In my photography, I look to, not only document events, but to impose my personal vision on them. In that way, I am striving to create Art not just pictures.

I have been photographing CW events since the 125th Anniversary Cycle and I have an extensive collection of both negatives and digital files. The Cornfield image comes from the morning tactical at the 125th Antietam and represents one of my earliest attempts (photography is fascinating because of its equal portions of luck and skill).

Civil War Trust: Carl, tell us more about how you captured this interesting photo of the Dunker Church?

Carl Staub: The Dunker Church image was from the 133rd Cycle (1995). The National Park Service gave permission for Living Historians to portray a series of vignettes on the very battlefield, itself, the first, and (as far as I am aware) the last time this occurred. The evening was quite cold with intermittent rain and attendance was negligible. The Dunker Church was transformed into a post-battle Field Hospital with a surgeon operating in his bloody apron and the pews all piled against the walls. Lighting was all by torches and lanterns. It was a very moving evening…

Civil War Trust: What sort of photographic equipment do you like to take to the battlefields?

Carl Staub: When I go to "war", I take as little equipment as possible. For example, at the recent Antietam event, I took a digital camera body (I'm a Nikon guy), a fast, longish telephoto lens with a distance adapter, a wide to moderate "normal" zoom, two polarizing filters and that's about it. I always have a tripod nearby (both Dunker Church and Cornfield would have been impossible without one) but don't like the maneuverability issue in "action". Now, I crank up my ISO to 1600 and shoot handheld. Very carefully. My camera is great at minimizing noise, even at this speed. Still, I don't like to push my luck and always reach for a tripod when it is convenient.

Civil War Trust: Share with us some of your photographic secrets.

Carl Staub: Conflict is the driving force of all good Theatre and there is plenty of it in Civil War re-enacting! If I have one "secret" to CW photography it is this: keep your eyes on the flags. The best action seems to happen there. The phrase, "Rally 'round the flag", did not gain popularity for nothing. I like to find the back light if I can. It's more difficult to control but the results are spectacular. Always keep a sharp eye peeled for great characters. The hobby is flush with them. And remember, some of the best photo ops take place in the time immediately after a battle scenario. Take lots and lots of pictures.

Finally, I would like to clearly express my great admiration and gratitude towards the thousands of re-enactors who cherish the memories of our ancestors who struggled and, in many cases, sacrificed their very lives in times of great distress. They go "all out" to give us a glimpse into what it may have been like "back in the day" and they do so with style and authenticity. And for all you fellow photographers, remember: "The brave ones shot bullets; the crazy ones, shot film…

Antietam - The Cornfield
"Antietam - Dawn in the Cornfield" by Carl Staub

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