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What Do I Want, John Henry?

A work made of albumen print, pl. 27 from the album "gardner's photographic sketch book of the war, vol. 1" (1866).
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of albumen print, pl. 27 from the album "gardner's photographic sketch book of the war, vol. 1" (1866).


November 1862


Alexander Gardner
American, born Scotland, 1821–1882

About this artwork

At the start of the Civil War, Alexander Gardner was granted unlimited access to photograph the Union troops. The images Gardner produced over the next four years—documenting the aftermath of battles and the life of soldiers in camp—were seen primarily in exhibitions and circulated in smaller form as cartes de visite. He published Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War in 1865, at the war’s end. With two volumes of 50 albumen prints each, the album retailed for $150—the equivalent of several months of an average worker’s wages—making it a luxury item. According to the photographer, “What do I want, John Henry?” was a question this Union captain frequently asked his servant (ex-slaves most often served the Northern army as cooks and laborers). On the page accompanying this photograph, Gardner patronizingly described John Henry as an “affectionate creature” of “untutored nature,” who was grateful for his newfound freedom at the war’s end.


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Photography and Media


Alexander Gardner


What Do I Want, John Henry?


United States


Made 1862


Albumen print, pl. 27 from the album "Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, vol. 1" (1866)


17.7 × 22.9 cm

Credit Line

Gift of Mrs. Everett Kovler

Reference Number


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