SINISTER IDYLL – HISTORICAL SLAVERY AND THE MODERN PASTORAL LANDSCAPE – Sully Plantation

Sully Plantation is another historic homestead in the Washington DC suburbs. Today, sited across the road from the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Air and Space Museum and the runways for Dulles International Airport, it is a tiny oasis of parkland in the middle of major development. This is one of the older properties I’ve been to, with the current house begun in 1793 and completed in 1799. It was built by Richard Bland Lee, Robert E. Lee’s uncle and the first Virginia representative to Congress. The property covered some 3,100 acres. It had been in the Lee family since the 1740s.

Kitchen at Sully
Kitchen at Sully

This is the kitchen at Sully. On the other side of the massive fireplace is the laundry. While it gives the appearance of bustling domesticity and comfort, it is still the site of slave labor that would have been conducted from before dawn to well after sundown seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The comfort and ease of life of the Lee family and their guests would have been the product of this room.

Recreated Slave Cabin, Sully
Recreated Slave Cabin, Sully

It bears minding that this one-room cabin with no glass in the windows, no insulation in the floor, walls or ceiling, a single stone fireplace for warmth in winter, and a long walk to the well, would have been luxurious by the standards of the field slaves. They most likely lived in large barracks-style buildings at considerable remove from the Sully house, with less privacy and fewer conveniences. Contrast this with the big house, with glass pane windows, carpets, fireplaces in every room, imported mirrors to brighten the parlor when the sun went down, feather beds, and a kitchen outside of the house to keep cooking odors and the risk of fire away.

Sully House and Dependencies
Sully House and Dependencies

A view of Sully from the slave residence’s perspective. On the left you can see the stone dairy house – a structure with spring-fed pools to keep milk, butter, and other perishables cool year-round. Next is the smoke house where they would have smoked meats to preserve them, and then the laundry and kitchen, connected to the big house by a covered walkway. All this would have seemed like an alien world to the field slave, and still a strange place they worked in but did not belong to for the house slaves living in the cabin with this view.

Walkway from Kitchen to House
Walkway from Kitchen to House

I’ve subtitled this one “Fifty Feet is a Thousand Miles” – although that covered walkway from the kitchen to the house is a short distance, walking it with breakfast, lunch and dinner made for someone else’s consumption every day of your life must have produced some significant cognitive dissonance for the women who worked the kitchen.

I remember hearing from a friend whose wife was a docent at Sully that Mrs. Lee remained friends with and corresponded with her personal maid for the rest of her life, even after her maid was freed from slavery and she had returned to Philadelphia where she was from. These kinds of friendships, and they did happen, certainly complicate the narrative of slaveowners and the enslaved, but it is still no excuse or balm for the absolute moral failure that was slavery. The friendship of a woman and her maid is not compensation for the remaining hundred-plus men, women and children who worked twelve hours a day in heat and cold, rain and snow, planting, tending and harvesting crops all for the profit and comfort of someone else without compensation or even decent living conditions.

Sinister Idyll – Image Accepted to Size Matters at Medium Festival of Photography

My image “Bachelors’ Quarters, L’Hermitage” from the Sinister Idyll series has been selected as a finalist in the Size Matters exhibition at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego.

To quote the prospectus for Size Matters:

Size Matters is the signature exhibition of the Medium Festival of Photography and San Diego’s month of photography: PHOTOLAB. We’re proud to partner with Lensculture and Low Gallery to host Size Matters from Oct. 22 – Nov. 12, 2016. We’re excited to welcome Allie Haeusslein, the Associate Director of Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, as the 2016 Size Matters juror.

Size Matters celebrates photographs that offer an intimate viewing experience by showcasing the power of photographic prints less than 10” in the widest dimension. Medium will host an opening reception with the exhibiting artists on Saturday, Oct. 22 from 7-10pm.

Allie Haeusslein is the Associate Director at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, one of the largest spaces dedicated to photography in the United States.

We’re honored to have Allie as the juror for Size Matters, selecting the exhibition content and purchase award. Her background as a photography curator, writer, and historian promises an unforgettable exhibition.

I will try to attend, and I hope to see some of you there!

Bachelors House, Best Farm
Bachelors House, Best Farm

2 1/4″ x 4 1/4″ palladium print on Hahnemuhle Platinum Rag 100% cotton 320gsm fine art paper. Edition of 10.

The Boathouse Dock, Georgetown

I was up on the old abutment for the C&O Canal viaduct that connected the canal from Georgetown to Alexandria over the Potomac River and looked down to the boat dock for the Georgetown Boat House and caught this composition. I had been photographing Key Bridge with my 5×12 (previously described here) when I looked down and saw this scene which cried out to be shot in the format.

Boathouse Dock, Georgetown
Boathouse Dock, Georgetown

The simple geometry and the contrast between the rigid lines of the dock broken up by the deck chair contrasted with the smooth water of the river really makes the image. Without the deck chair, it would actually be pretty boring. But adding that one small compositional element makes it go from so what to interesting.

Sinister Idyll – Historical Slavery and the Modern Pastoral Landscape – Best Farm

This series of images are what inspired my current project – Sinister Idyll. Sinister Idyll as a title came about from standing on the Best Farm property at the Monocacy National Battlefield monument outside Frederick, Maryland, and seeing the beautiful summertime landscape of rolling hills covered with cornfields, knowing the horrors of American slavery that were practiced on the property. At the end of the 18th century, the Vincendieres, a French Creole family fled to Maryland from Haiti to escape the slave revolts.

Headed by a woman, Victoire, they re-established their plantation life outside Frederick, Maryland, on a 750-plus acre property they called L’Hermitage. At their peak, they owned some 90 slaves. This was an extraordinary number – across the Potomac River, Oatlands plantation had 120 to work 3500 acres. It is not known why they had so many slaves as records of their business do not survive, and they may have been trying to cultivate labor-intensive crops such as tobacco. What is known, however, is that they were also operating a stud service – slave breeding for hire – and that their own methods for treating their slaves were harsh enough that the sheriff was called to their property multiple times by neighbors on complaints about cruelty and mistreatment of the enslaved population.

Bachelors House, Best Farm
Bachelors House, Best Farm

This building is the Bachelors’ House, a secondary dwelling for the young men of the family to live outside the main house until they married and started their own property and family. Today it presents an idyllic scene, but on the ridge behind it and to the right was the location of three slave cabins, each not much different in size to the Bachelors’ House, but housing roughly thirty people per structure.

Corn Crib, Best Farm
Corn Crib, Best Farm

This is the corn crib on the Best Farm. It is called the Best Farm today, rather than L’Hermitage, because the last family to operate the farm was the Best family – they leased the land from 1863 into the 1990s. The corn crib is another site of slave labor in an otherwise bucolic landscape. The stone barn you can see in the background would have housed farm animals and machinery. It is a far better, more sound and protective structure than the cabins where the slaves would have lived. You can see the shadow of the big house intruding on the foreground, much as it would have loomed over the lives of all the enslaved population.

Stone Barn, Best Farm
Stone Barn, Best Farm

If the stone barn gives you echoes of northern France, you’d be correct – architecturally it is styled after the structures of the homeland of the Vincendiere family. It is one of the oldest stone barns in Maryland, if not in the US. There is a tremendous sense of irony that a structure styled after the home of freedom of thought and equality of mankind would be the site of barbaric enslavement. There is also a tremendous irony in such a property being operated in such a way by a woman in the first decades of the 19th century, when such things were highly anomalous at best.

Corn Field, Best Farm
Corn Field, Best Farm

Today this field grows rich with corn. Clear blue skies and puffy white clouds cap the scene. In 1862, in this cornfield, a turning-point of the Civil War almost happened. Robert E. Lee’s army had camped here, on the march to Antietam. Left behind was a copy of General Orders #191, which detailed Lee’s plans. It was found wrapped around three cigars, abandoned in the camp. Delivered to General MacLellan, they practically handed him Lee’s army on a platter. As usual, MacLellan failed to follow up completely on this intelligence coup, and the end result was the single deadliest day in U.S. military history with some 22,000 dead, wounded or missing, and a war that would drag on for three more long, bloody years.

I have chosen to photograph these scenes in panoramic format because the wide aspect ratio emphasizes the landscape surroundings and provides a context for the structures and places. I purposefully chose to print them as very small contact prints to force intimacy with the subject – to view them you can’t hold yourself at a remove and distance yourself from the context – the echoes of slavery on this landscape are very much still with us if we stop for a moment to look and listen. I am printing them in palladium because the warm tone of the image evokes a certain historicity of the scene, reminding you that these hidden scars upon the landscape and the soul of the country are eternal.

My plans are to continue this project on locations throughout the Washington DC metropolitan area and expanding beyond as time and budget permit. Next up, Sully Plantation.

Key Bridge, Evening, in Palladium

Key Bridge
Key Bridge

Another print I made this weekend – Key Bridge, in palladium. This is a 5×12 negative from my Canham. For the technically minded, I used a circa 1949 Kodak Commercial Ektar 12″ lens for the shot. It’s a very sharp lens with pleasant rendering, and a good match for the subject matter. I also want to talk for a second about the printing – this is a pure palladium print, with a touch of NA2 added for contrast. Sodium Platinum (NA2 for short) is a contrast agent you can add to a palladium print to boost the contrast if required. NA2 is very powerful stuff – a tiny bit goes a long way. In this case, I needed just one drop of 2.5% NA2 added to the 12 drops of Palladium and 12 drops of Ferric Oxalate sensitizer. NA2 comes from the manufacturer in a 5% strength solution, so you can see how little was needed to give the print some snap.

If you are using blended platinum and palladium, or trying to do a pure platinum print, and are in need of a contrast boost, you cannot use NA2 as a contrast agent – the platinum in it binds with platinum in your paper and what ends up happening is you reduce your highlights, blowing out detail, without actually increasing contrast. If you are using a blend, or pure platinum, you have several options – you can boost the contrast with a different additive, such as gold chloride, you can pre-coat your paper with fumed silica, or you can use a dichromate infused developer. I prefer adding a contrast agent into the emulsion rather than in the developer, because to do the infused developer route, you’ll need to have six or eight bottles of developers with different concentrations of contrast agent, and then you’ll have to play with chemistry to mix up replenisher for each developer concentration as it gets used. That realistically means keeping twelve to sixteen bottles of developer around. The downside to additives to the emulsion is that most of them will alter the color of the print. Gold Chloride will do anything from slightly cooler gray tones to eggplant/aubergine tones, depending on how much of it you use. Sodium Tungstate will actually reduce contrast in the print, and give you reddish brown tones. You can use dichromate in the emulsion as an alternative to the developer, but you must be careful in handling the undeveloped print as dichromate is toxic.

Fun with Triptychs – revisited, this time with prints!

You may recall I recently posted some triptychs I did with my Lomo Belair X/6-12. I had been postponing printing them because I was A: being lazy, and B: I knew that they would be challenging to print because 1: lining up two negatives is hard enough, but getting three is even harder, and these are three pieces of roll film which doesn’t want to lay flat, and 2: I was concerned that there would be too much space between the frames because of the size of the image area vis-a-vis the negative size.

Inertia being the greatest of obstacles, it took me until now to get around to printing them. The challenges of registering the negatives to map my coating area, then re-registering them so they would align properly when exposing were substantial, but not as bad as I thought they would be. I guess there was enough humidity in the room that they cooperated for the most part and didn’t act as dust magnets or tensioned leaf springs while trying to place the cover glass in the contact frame.

Columbia Plaza, Horizontal Triptych
Columbia Plaza, Horizontal Triptych

I think of this first one as a panorama of panoramas – it’s a horizontal panorama in the end, made of three vertical panorama shots. It’s the more conventional of the two in that it shows a fairly straightforward interpretation of the scene.

Columbia Plaza, Vertical Triptych
Columbia Plaza, Vertical Triptych

The vertical triptych I got a bit more creative in my interpretation, showing the middle frame askew, and each frame is not discreet in what it depicts – if you look carefully, they overlap in their subject matter, and you could almost do the top and bottom frames as a square-isn diptych.

Both images were printed on #Hahnemuhle #PlatinumRag in pure #palladium. No contrast agent was used, and they were developed in #PotassiumOxalate.

Image Published on fslashd!

For those unaware of it, fslashd (f/D) is a website devoted to pinhole photography. I’ve had one of my images published on their site as part of their Inspiration of the Week page –

http://fslashd.com/2016/07/inspiration-week-of-725/

Foggy Bottom Metro, Waiting
Foggy Bottom Metro, Waiting

Kier, the editor of the site, also included a few remarks by me about my photography and why I appreciate and enjoy alternative/lensless image-making tools.

Scott Davis is an experienced photographer in historic printing processes, and has recently started to work in pinhole for additional inspiration. He’s developed an appreciation for the simplicity of pinhole and how it lets him focus on the image, not the equipment. As he states: “Working with cameras that don’t have lenses or shutters per se, or at least that have primitive ones, means that serendipity becomes important in my work…What interests me is the capture of whole seconds, minutes and even hours of time in a frame, contrasting the things that move in the scene with things that remain static.”

For anyone interested, he’s also running a call for entries for pinhole work – http://fslashd.com/call-for-entry/. This is your chance to get published not just on a webpage but in an actual physical book.

Photography, Alternative Processes, Really Big Cameras, and other cool stuff

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