Friends of Fort Ontario

George N. Barnard Pioneer American Photographer Exhibit at Fort Ontario

[19 September 2014] A temporary exhibit on the life and photographic images of pioneer American photographer George N. Barnard has been installed at Fort Ontario State Historic Site in Oswego, NY.  On loan from the Onondaga Historical Association, the exhibit will be displayed in Officer’s Quarters One until Columbus Day when the fort closes for the season.   Regular fort admission prices will be charged and include entry to the exhibit.

George Barnard was born on December 23rd, 1819 in Coventry, Connecticut, but after his father died in 1826 his family moved to Central New York.  After subsequently moving to Tennessee with a sister and her husband and living there for a few years, Barnard returned to New York in 1842; by 1846 he worked as manager of the Oswego Hotel.  In 1843 Barnard married Sarah Jane Hodges and the couple eventually had two children.  Barnard soon opened his own daguerreotype studio in Oswego, the first of its kind in the United States, and is credited as having taken the first “spot-news” photographs when he recorded the great Oswego fire of 1853.  The fire, which began at the Fitzhugh’s and Company Flour Mills on the east side of Oswego Harbor, eventually destroyed eight city blocks and left 2,000 people homeless.  During his tenure in Oswego Barnard demonstrated an interest in documenting the lives of the working class and poor evident in his iconic “The Wood Sawyer’s Nooning.”  In 1854 Barnard partnered with William Nichols and opened a studio in Syracuse while working to promote the new ambrotype process as well as paper prints and tintypes.

Barnard was hired by the firm of Edward Anthony and moved to New York City in 1859 to take stereographs; this provided him an opportunity to travel to Cuba and Niagara Falls in 1860-62. While in Cuba, Barnard strove to showcase differences between poor plantation workers and the extravagant lives of Spanish nobility.  During the American Civil War (1861-1865) Barnard was employed by Matthew Brady and captured many different aspects of the conflict; he photographed various locations in Virginia, including Harpers Ferry, Bull Run, and Yorktown.  But, in December 1863, he was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Army of the Cumberland, to document subjects and sites assigned to him.  Barnard accompanied Major-General William T. Sherman’s Army on his March to the Sea through Georgia; his photographs preserved images of the destruction left in the army’s wake and documented the landscapes and ruins of Charleston, Fort Sumter, Atlanta, Savannah, and Columbia.  Without Barnard’s photographs the severity of the destruction wrought during Sherman’s March would be difficult to imagine; his contributions to Civil War photography were tremendous.

After the Civil War Barnard moved to Charleston, South Carolina and photographed the images of newly freed slaves, particularly women, making their first attempts at entrepreneurial ventures and doing business in southern markets. In 1871 Barnard opened a new studio in Chicago, Illinois, and was one of many photographers to report on the Great Chicago Fire.  George Barnard moved back to Central New York and married his second wife, Emma Chapin Gilbert in 1881.  He travelled extensively trying to capture the daily lives of everyday Americans in photographs.  Barnard spent his last years in Cedarvale, New York, where he photographed the local residents, remaining an active photographer until he died on February 4, 1902. George N. Barnard played a pivotal role in the development of photography in the United States, always remaining on the cutting edge of new methods and practices in the field; his photographs highlight some of the most destructive and painful episodes in American history.  Barnard also made significant contributions to local history with his work in Oswego and Central New York.

For more information on the George N. Bernard exhibit or Fort Ontario contact Paul Lear or Emily Markstein at (315) 343-4711. Fort Ontario State Historic Site is located at the north end of East 4th Street in the City of Oswego, New York.