African-American Faces Of The Civil War

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 4:02 pm

The impulses to collect and to doodle have always been in Ron Coddington's blood. As a kid, it was baseball cards. As a teen, he took an interest in old flea market photos — and simultaneously became "obsessed," he says, "with learning to draw the human face."

That explains a lot. Coddington kicked off a career in journalism as an illustrator doing caricatures — eventually growing into the position of art director at USA Today. These days, he's the head of the data visualization and multimedia team at The Chronicle of Higher Education. And he's still collecting.

"I don't know what my problem is," he says with a laugh on the phone. "When I went to college, I didn't have a lot of belongings, but the one thing I brought in the front seat with me was a cigar box with my collection in it."

These photos are called cartes de visite: little portrait cards that were easily reproduced and therefore immensely popular for decades — especially during the Civil War. And Coddington's obsessive collecting has yielded three books so far: Faces of the Civil War, Confederates of the Civil War and, most recently, African American Faces of the Civil War.

Finding these images is a major investigative undertaking. Because for Coddington, finding the photo isn't enough.

"It's more than just a face," he says.

The story is what's important — and those details are incredibly rare. So what makes Coddington's collection special are the biographical details that accompany the images. If you take the time to read their stories, the individuals spring to life — well after they've died.

The Picture Show asked Coddington to choose 10 highlights from his most recent book. But you can really dig into the rest of the collection on this website.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.