Born in Scotland in 1829 (or 1832 according to some records), virtually nothing is known about John Reekie’s family or early life. It is believe that he and his Scottish-born wife Margaret immigrated to the United States just prior to the Civil War. Around this time, wet-collodion glass plates and albumen prints dominated the burgeoning field of photography. Extremely labor intensive, wet-plate photography produced sharp images and contrasting tones that captured wartime combat with particular poignancy.
As a member of the Quartermaster Corps, Mr. Reekie was hired by photographer (and fellow Scot) Alexander Gardner to document the Virginia surroundings the unit encountered during their Civil War assignment, which included images of, among other locales, Dutch Gap, City Point, and Richmond. In early April 1865, the Corps occupied Gaines Mill and Cold Harbor that ghoulishly resembled dumping grounds for dead soldiers following the Confederate retreat. This proved to be an artistic rite of passage for young Mr. Reekie, He was struck by the unsung African American soldiers who were heroically struggling in vain to give the corpses a proper burial. While it has been argued that the photographer lined up the five skulls to heighten dramatic effect, the African-American gravediggers in the background command equal attention. Purposely taking a lowered perspective, the sepia-toned photograph pays respectful homage to the discarded remains and the workers’ diligent efforts. Art historian Anthony W. Lee observed that “A Burial Party” reveals “an awareness through photography that anti-narrative and anti-heroism, forms of fracture and the impossibility of exultation, were what lay in store in the modern world.” Ironically, this startling photograph, which for many has come to encapsulate the horrors of the Civil War in a singular image, remained largely unseen for more than a century.
After the war, Mr. Reekie rejoined civilian life as an active member of the St. Andrews Society, a Washington, DC-based Scottish relief organization. After the death of his first wife, he married Elizabeth Jane Wilding in 1881, with whom he lived quietly until his death from pneumonia on April 6, 1885. He is interred at Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, DC, and his Civil War photographs were prominently resurrected to universal acclaim at the 2013 exhibition, “Photography and the American Civil War” held at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The chilling image captured in “A Burial Party” remains a vivid reminder of the timeless conflicts that exist between black and white, slavery and freedom, life and death. Albumen silver prints of John Reekie’s works also can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and 17 of his Civil War prints are currently in the possession of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA.
2012 From Civility to Survival: Richmond Ladies During the Civil War by Neal E. Wixson (Bloomington, MN: iUniverse, Inc.), pp. xx, xxv.
1959 Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War by Alexander Gardner (New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.), pp. 93-95.
2019 John Reekie (URL: https://peoplepill.com/people/john-reekie).
2019 John Reekie: Find A Grave (URL: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/156444908/john-reekie).
2019 The Petersburg Photographs (URL: http://www.petersburgproject.org/john-reekie-photographer-for-the-quartermaster-corps.html).
2013 Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff L. Rosenheim (New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 98-99, 112-113)
2019 Photography at MoMA Edited by Quentin Bajac, Lucy Gallun, Roxana Marcoci, and Sarah Hermanson Meister (https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/learn/courses/meister_not_necessarily_art_nineteenthcentury_american_photographs.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_source=other&utm_campaign=opencourse.-qAWU5qYEeWdIQqYUkH3aw.announcements%7Eopencourse.-qAWU5qYEeWdIQqYUkH3aw.8W2XmL59EeemdQozdt0O0A).
2017 Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography by Robert Hirsch (New York, NY: Routledge), p. 109.
2013 War Images, Revealing and Holding Back by Ken Johnson (New York, NY: The New York Times), p. 25 (Section C).
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