Category Archives: Landscapes

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 – 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.

More Fort Foote

These are details of the fifteen inch Rodman guns and their emplacements at Fort Foote. I apologize for the delay in posting this second round. In this set of images I was focusing on the textures of the ironwork and the geometric patterns and repetition in the gun emplacements. There are endless circles and semi-circles repeating throughout, from the barrel of the gun itself to the wheels to the tracks to guide the traverse. They take on a bit of a crop-circle kind of feel: looking at the remnants makes you wonder if they’re the leftovers of an alien civilization.

Gun Carriage Wheel
Gun Carriage Wheel
Rodman Gun, Fort Foote
Rodman Gun, Fort Foote
Standing Sentry
Standing Sentry
Lone Rodman, Fort Foote
Lone Rodman, Fort Foote
Gun Placements, Fort Foote
Gun Placements, Fort Foote

Because these are in the (encroaching) natural environment, I’ll grudgingly classify them as landscapes, but I think of them more as documentary work given the subject matter.

Fort Foote Excursion

Serendipity plays a major role in my life. A couple weeks ago I took a mental health day mid-week and decided to visit some of our local history. My original intent was to take a short road trip to see some historic houses in northern Virginia, but they (the Woodlawn Plantation and the Pope-Leighy House) were still closed for the season. Instead, I thought I’d take a quick drive down Indian Head Highway into southern Maryland and visit Fort Washington, created to defend the capital city from river attack in the early days of the Republic. The current structures date from the years after the War of 1812 to the first decade of the 20th century. The main fort was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the man who laid out the design for the streets of Washington DC.

On the drive down Indian Head Highway, after only a mile or so I saw a sign saying “Fort Foote Park”. I decided I’d detour and check it out. I really didn’t know much of anything about Fort Foote other than I presumed it was part of the Civil War-era defenses of Washington DC. My presumption about it was correct, but there’s a lot more to it than you might expect given that description. Most of the 68 defensive forts that ringed DC are now little more than some mounded dirt with a plaque commemorating what they were. They’re overgrown with trees and grass and cross-cut with walking trails, city streets, and even housing developments. Fort Stevens, the location where the only sitting United States President ever came under enemy fire, today is barely a half a square block, hidden behind a post-war church, 20th century homes and shops, and hemmed in by city streets.

Fort Foote has been spared much of that indignity. Fort Foote (named after a Union admiral who was killed in action in 1863 assaulting Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi river) too is overgrown with forest, but the earthworks remain very much in their original configuration. It owes its survival in part due to the location on a 100 foot tall bluff facing the Potomac river, too awkward a site for proper development. Two of the mighty 15 inch Columbiads (also known as Rodman guns for the man who designed them) remain in situ, and the ammunition vault’s crumbling ruins (also known as a “bombproof”) can be seen and scampered over by enterprising and nimble youth.

Crumbling Bombproof, Fort Foote
Crumbling Bombproof, Fort Foote
Bombproof Entrance, Fort Foote
Bombproof Entrance, Fort Foote

The Rodman gun was a major innovation in cannon technology. Due to a radical change in forging technique, they could be made much stronger and safer to be fired repeatedly without risk of the powder charge exploding the gun itself. The design was so successful that eventually the United States had nearly 450 of them providing coastal defense. The 15 inch Columbiad version could fire a 200 pound projectile some 5000 yards and penetrate ten-inch steel armor at that range. The guns at Fort Foote were never fired in anger. The smaller 12 inch and 8 inch cannons that topped the earthworks were removed by the end of the 19th century when the fort was decommissioned. Today, only a handful of the 15 inch Rodman guns remain in existence, the majority having been melted down or in some cases entombed in concrete to add support to the improved fortifications they once defended.

Rodman Gun, Front View
Rodman Gun, Front View
Rodman Gun
Rodman Gun

The notches on the back of the Rodman gun, along with the large, relatively flat “knob”, are signatures of the design, and indicative of some of the innovations. By making the “knob” large and flat, it made it much easier to hoist the cannon for moving it and loading and aiming – a common problem with smaller guns that had a much more traditional knob on the rear was that the weight of the gun, when hoisted in the air, would stress the join between the barrel and the knob and it would break, sending the extremely heavy barrel crashing to the ground, crushing anyone below, ruining the gun, and possibly discharging the shot if it were loaded.

Rear, Rodman Gun
Rear, Rodman Gun

The Rodman cannons were mounted on platforms that would enable them to be withdrawn below the earthworks to be loaded, and then raised when ready to aim and fire, reducing the exposure of the gunnery teams to enemy small arms fire. This wheel with its tubes to take wooden levers would have been used to raise and lower the gun on the pop-up mount.

Elevation wheel, Rodman Gun
Elevation wheel, Rodman Gun

Roman Panoramas – Pines of Rome

So I was busy and didn’t get around to developing the last few rolls from my Italian adventure until a couple days ago. I’m working through them now – they’re all panoramic shots taken with my Lomo Belair X/6-12. I’m still on the fence about whether and how much I like it.

Umbrella Pine, Via Fori Imperiali
Umbrella Pine, Via Fori Imperiali

In this case, it worked. Quite well in fact. This is one of the famous “Pines of Rome” – the umbrella pine – that are ubiquitous throughout the city and the region. They’re the source of the pine nuts used in making pesto. The umbrella pine is such a signature emblem of Rome I needed to take a photo of it by itself because now having been there, I can’t think of the city without thinking of the pines.

More Memories of Summer

This trio of Lotus seed pods might look a little odd to those in the know- they’re not exactly in their native habitat. I was wandering the trails at Kenilworth, saw these three had fallen while still full of seeds, and picked them up to make a still-life. I re-planted them in the muddy bank of a lily pond to create this grouping.

Lotus Pod Trio
Lotus Pod Trio

This cat-o-nine-tails at full fluff presented itself to me at the edge of another one of the ponds.

Cat-o-Nine-Tails
Cat-o-Nine-Tails

Reminder of Summers Past and Future

I finally got around to scanning and uploading these shots from Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens I took back in the waning days of summer. Now’s the perfect time to bring them out as it’s descending into freezing temperatures here, as a reminder of the golden light and radiant heat that we love to complain about while we’re in the middle of it, but deeply miss when it’s gone.

Lotus Leaf
Lotus Leaf
African Lilies
African Lilies

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ve seen me post other photos (and the odd video!) from Kenilworth. If you’re at all a fan of aquatic plants, Kenilworth is well worth the visit, as they have acres of lily ponds, lotus plants, cat-o-nine-tails and other species that grow in wet and marshy environments. In addition to the flowering plants, Kenilworth is a great place to go for wildlife – everything from dragonflies to frogs to turtles to herons and even supposedly a beaver family can be found there. And the amazing thing is that it’s not only in the middle of a city, but in the middle of a rough part of the city. Enter the gardens and you think you’re in some vast national park riverine oasis, not three miles as the crow flies from the United States Capitol building.