I recently read a critique in New York magazine by Jerry Saltz about a current MoMA exhibit, “Photography and The American Civil War.” The piece mentioned Alexander Gardner, a Scottish-born war photographer famous for his Civil War coverage and portraits of Lincoln. When I read about a particular photo of his, Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, I went a-Googling.
Scrolling through Gardner’s images, one particular portrait stopped me –– but for all the wrong reasons. It was a young gentleman, clean-shaven, out of uniform, staring starkly at the camera. Let’s put it this way: I could imagine him on the cover of Esquire. Further Googling identified him a Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Paine/Payne) of Alabama, one of the four gentleman hung for Lincoln’s assassination. It seems Powell had also unsuccessfully attempted to murder United States Secretary of State William H. Seward. Gardner photographed each of the four conspirators before their deaths.
Before I knew Powell’s background, I’d automatically assumed him a loyal and heroic Union Soldier, and, umm, my boyfriend (of the Civil-War-me, of course.) Black and white photography has always fascinated me, as if the people in the pictures lived in an actually black and white world, one we no longer have access to. Oh, the romanticism.
My point is this: Lewis Powell makes a great writing prompt. If you’re looking for a jumpstart to your next story or poem, consider this unusual suspect. You don’t have to create him as he was (considering his looks far exceded his integrity), but if you stare at the photos for a while, he might start to evolve in front of you. If nothing else, he makes for good Monday-morning eye candy.
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