Mike Werner’s Collection of Civil War Photographs Includes Rare Images

Rural La Porte City’s Mike Werner has always enjoyed history. Several years ago, when he first laid eyes on a picture taken in the mid-1860s, he had no way of knowing that his initial curiosity would blossom into a full-fledged passion for Civil War photography. Thanks to that passion, he now has an impressive collection of rare photographs from perhaps the most important period of time in our nation’s history.
Over the years, Werner’s collection has grown, much like his knowledge of the Civil War. A voracious reader, Werner has spent a lot of time reading and perusing information about the war online. When he can, he attends trade shows and browses the tables of Civil War memorabilia for sale. While some collectors have very specific requirements for the images they seek, Werner does not limit himself in that way, and his collection reflects the broad interest he has for historical images of the period.
The passage of time is not the sole reason photographs of the Civil War are so rare. The technology associated with photography in the mid-1800s was, at best, a delicate process, one limited to professional photographers, whose mobile darkrooms required a wagon to haul all of their heavy equipment.
Like the variety of subject matter depicted in his photos, Werner’s collection includes a number of the different types of photography used in the mid-1860s. One common form used during the war was ambrotype photography. This process involved coating a plate of glass with a silver solution to make it sensitive to light. After exposing the plate to the image, early ambrotypes produced the image on the back of the glass, which was then sandwiched with another piece of glass behind it. Later ambroypes were printed on the front of the glass. When the photographer coated the back side with a black lacquer, the negative image would then appear as a positive. Because the images themselves were so fragile, ambrotypes from this time period were typically encased with a mat, top glass and preserver before being placed in a case.
Another common form of photography during the Civil War was the tintype, which involved transferring the positive image onto a thin sheet of iron (no actual tin was used) along with a dark lacquer or enamel. Tintypes were more resilient and did not require drying time, so they could be developed and presented to the customer within minutes of taking the picture.
Because of the extensive research he has done over the years, Werner has a much better idea today of the value each of his photos can command on the open market. For him, though, the value of his collection is not best expressed in dollars and cents. Rather, it’s the enjoyment he’s gotten from his hobby, along with the many friends he’s made over the years who share his passion for Civil War history.