If you’ve been following along and paying attention to my blog, you know I’m a huge history fan, especially with regards to the US Civil War. I have had the great opportunity and privilege to attend perhaps a dozen tours through the Smithsonian Associates program led by Ed Bearss. Ed is the Chief Historian Emeritus of the United States Park Service, a combat-wounded World War 2 veteran, and even today at 93 he is still leading history tours over 160 days a year. He has an inimitable speaking style, a beyond encyclopedic knowledge of US history (especially military history), and a boundless energy rarely found in people less than half his age.
The trip where I took these photos was in the early spring of this year, to visit a lesser-known early battle of the Civil War, known as Kelly’s Ford. The battlefield is just down the road from Brandy Station, where JEB Stuart faced off against a now-competitive Union cavalry, and Robert E. Lee’s son Rooney was injured in the leg.
Kelly’s Ford was a smaller engagement and marked the beginning of the rise of Union cavalry, where previously Confederate cavalry had utterly dominated the field. Despite the relative minor character of the engagement, Ed, with his signature presentation and his admonition “if you want to understand the battle, you have to walk the battlefield”, manages to make such minor events and historical footnotes compelling.
I love this last photo of Ed as it really captures his spirit and personality.
What do you do at 2:30 AM when you’re stricken with a bout of insomnia? Why you tackle a prototype matting job for a very large triptych (3x 10×13 images in a 20×40 mat/frame). Which of course you mis-measure the windows in the horizontal dimension, ending up cutting them 1/4″ too wide.
At least I didn’t screw it up prototyping with 8 ply mat board (which I’ve been known to do before). I think the sequence and the tonal values works for the series, which I’m titling “Head, Heart, Hand”. Or something to that effect.
I think sometimes (perhaps most of the time? All of the time?) presentation can make or break an image. Its success is the culmination of many decisions that begin with the decision of what camera and film to pick up before heading out the door in the morning, following through to what to point the camera at, on to what developer, paper, process, cropping… it doesn’t end until the framed print is hung on a wall, sequenced with the rest of the prints in the show. They all build on each other.
What do you all think of the sequencing of this triptych? Head, Heart, Hand, or the other way round? Any other critique/feedback is welcome.
All three images were shot on Kodak Tri-X, in my 1956 Rolleiflex 2.8E. Film developed in Pyrocat HD, printed on Ilford Warmtone MG fiber paper processed using Ilford Warmtone developer.
For those curious what the heck I’ve been talking about when I mention my Lomo Belair X/6-12, and the Russian glass lens for it, here you go. The Belair is an odd little beast – collapsible folding strut camera, takes 6×6, 6×9 or 6×12 centimeter negatives depending on which insert you use, is manual focus, scale focusing (you guess the distance and set it on the lens, and compose through an un-coupled viewfinder), has only two aperture options – f/8 or f/16, has manual film advance via red window, yet has an automatic shutter over which the only control you have is changing the ISO dial. Bulb exposures are an option.
The camera out of the box comes with some plastic fantastic lenses (a 90mm and a 58mm). The 90 has perceptible but not egregious distortion, reasonable contrast, and acceptable sharpness. The 58 is, well, not so good. The viewfinder for the 58 has less distortion than the lens does! After the Belair had been out for maybe 6 months or a year, they introduced a limited run of Russian-made all-glass optics for it – a 90mm and a 114mm. I got into the Belair game too late to be able to buy the glass lenses from Lomography, as they were sold out. The lenses were also quite expensive from Lomography, the Belair vendor. I believe they were something on the order of $300 apiece.
After having used the Belair with the plastic lens for a while, I got the itch to try and find the glass lenses. That’s when I discovered that they had all been sold, and nobody had any old stock sitting around. They didn’t show up with any frequency on Ebay either. I had particularly wanted to find the 90mm, but no dice. Then along came someone selling their 114mm. The price was good, so I jumped on it rather than take a chance on missing out.
In addition to the primary reason for getting the glass lens – the glass in the lens with its exceptional sharpness and flare resistance – the ability to precisely control focus is another benefit. The plastic lenses have four distances marked on the barrel – infinity, 3 meters, 1.5 meters and 1 meter (infinity, 9 feet, 4.5 feet and 3 feet for the metrically challenged). If you wanted to focus in between, you had to guess at the distance and hope the depth of field would carry the day. The Zenit-made 114mm and 90mm lenses have many intermediate distances marked on the focusing ring, which is silky smooth without being loose. The ability to much more precisely place your focus means that you can intentionally place objects in or out of focus. This is a major artistic control and a very welcome addition.
I’m including this scan of a negative made by the 114 so you can see the sharpness and particularly the flare resistance – I’ve had more flare on my Rolleiflex with the lens hood attached with the sun NOT in the picture. While Russian camera bodies may have been shall we say quality-control challenged (particularly in the Soviet era), their optics are truly outstanding. This should be proof enough to put doubt to rest that Russian lenses are up to par with their German and Japanese peers.
The image was shot on ten year out of date Ilford FP4+, and developed in Pyrocat HD.
Just a real quick video of an exposed print being developed. This is what a develop-out print looks like, and how quickly the developer works. The print is almost fully realized in the first twenty seconds of the development cycle, but you still need to give the full two minutes to let the highlights fully develop.
This is what the raw, unexposed double-coated emulsion looks like. I double-coat to get better shadow depth and highlight separation. You can see the two coatings on the lower left. The reason I’m willing to double-coat is that I’m making such small prints that the extra cost isn’t prohibitive.
And the finished print. I think the end result justifies the added labor and expense.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.