THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S COMMENTS
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
My initial interest in the American Civil War was prompted by two events. One was an invitation by novelist and former Director David Madden to be on the board of advisors of the United States Civil War Center, and the other was a report I heard on public radio describing the plight of our Nation's Civil War Battlefields. They are becoming lost because of neglect and disinterest by the public. Increased encroachment of building parking lots and shopping malls spring up next to historic and sacred ground creating a threat both real and aesthetic.
In the summer of 1993, I made my first attempt with a camera on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga. The early results were not encouraging. For a photographer, motel rooms are important. Film must be loaded at night in the bathroom. The room must be made light tight by using black masking tape and stuffing the photographer's darkcloth under the crack in the door. All the lights in the room must be turned off including the
TV. The process takes about 45 minutes depending on how much film needs to be reloaded. Towels are usually wrapped around one's head to prevent perspiration from dripping on the film. It is often a tedious job. While reloading film in the motel's bathroom, water from the
tub's spigot dripped into my exposed film box making those early negatives almost unusable.
Undaunted I continued my quest. Because of its close proximity to Baton Rouge, Vicksburg Military Park was visited more often than other sites. I felt the most comfortable there with its rolling hills and river views. Coincidentally both Vicksburg and Gettysburg fell on the same day in history, July 4, 1863. In 1994, I was fortunate to gain support from Louisiana State University's Council on Research in the form of a summer research stipend to photograph the battlefields in Virginia, Maryland, and Gettysburg. In 1997, I was also awarded a
sabbatical leave from Louisiana State University to finish the work in Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Shiloh.
My plans to photograph the Civil War battlefields during the month of June 1994 was a good decision. The pre-scheduled month of July was wet, partially due to the tropical storm "Alberto" that devastated Georgia and ended up in the Northeast. Gettysburg in July is packed with visitors. There is a major reenactment of the battle complete with cannon fusillades and infantry and cavalry charges. If I had waited until July, the project may have been impossible to accomplish. Sometimes you need a little luck with the weather and other unknown quantities. Preparations were to include taking the 4 x 5 field camera as well as the 8 x 20 banquet camera. The use of this "smaller" camera has been beneficial because it has allowed me to make many more photographs that I would have been able to otherwise. I chose to work in black and white. It seemed more appropriate than color considering the seriousness of the subject. These photographs represent a tribute and a fitting memorial to the men and the events that took place there.
My daughter Patricia and I left Baton Rouge, June 6, and headed northeast. Arriving at our destination, we photographed in the area south of Washington D.C. several days working in overcast light. In my opinion, it is best to have overcast light for wooded areas rather than the patchy light and dark that would have resulted from working in bright sunlight. Bright sunlight is good for open areas or specific subject matter such as the many monuments which eulogize the war. In this regard, we were extremely lucky finding the right kind of light for the subjects and landscape we were photographing.
After more than a week we arrived in Gettysburg June 18. The park is larger and different in character than most of the others. It is one of the few battles that the North just barely won and it is devoted to the Union victory. The place was full of tourists. The motels were packed for the weekend. Tour busses arrived from Washington, D.C., unloading their passengers who often ruined the essence and mood of a photograph by filling the viewfinder with curious onlookers. There was nothing to do but wait until they moved out of the frame. Frustrated, we worked the next morning and drove on to Sharpsburg. The surrounding countryside was full of people. There was no where to stay around the Sharpsburg area. We spent the night in Hagerstown getting one of the last rooms the town had to offer. The next day we drove the 20 miles back to Sharpsburg and photographed the Antietam battlefield. It was foreboding that gray and overcast morning. Thunder rolled in from an approaching storm sounding like distant field artillery. It rained shortly after. Antietam remains the saddest place I have ever photographed. I felt this profound feeling each time I visited the park. We headed back to Gettysburg soon after the film had been exposed.
We had much better luck on Sunday. The people were clearing out of town. We were able to book a motel across the street from the entrance to the park headquarters. For the next three days, I was able to photograph Gettysburg in several different kinds of light. There was sun, hazy sun, followed by overcast skies. I needed a way to organize the problem of photographing Gettysburg and that was, for me, by the same way the battle was fought, over a three day period. In small increments the battlefields secrets were revealed through careful observation of the
lay of the land and a history lesson given by one the many park's tour guides. I left Gettysburg with an appreciation for history and hundreds of exposed sheets of film.
Each battlefield has its own spirit. It is a living thing. Shiloh has a Gris Gris (bad luck) for me. The first time we were there, it rained buckets, my wife Belinda had a sick headache, and I overexposed my film by 10 stops. What should have been a one second exposure was a one minute exposure. I had misread my light meter. I had to refer to my technical books to mix up a strong bleaching compound in order to reduce the silver in the negative to render it printable. This time would be no different but it was my emotional state of mind that was in doubt. After five years my project was coming to a close. The following is an excerpt from my journal that described the final shoot.
April 1998: We decided to check into a motel in Savannah, Tenn. It was a good place, quiet and clean but I noticed wind damage from a recent storm. The shingles had blown off exposing the roof's black tar paper undercoating. After a nap, it was back ten miles to the battlefield for some shooting. Walking down the sunken road my mood was interrupted by a family of boisterous boys picking up sticks and rocks throwing them just anywhere. On my way back to the car, I found a baby bird lying on its back, still alive (not a good sign). We made eye contact and it told me of its suffering and the suffering of the entire world, animals and people, all creatures on the planet through its "wars and rumors of wars." I became very sad and depressed. Belinda tried to get my mind off of it. There was nothing I could do for the bird. I tried to help a wounded bird before and I all I did was hasten its death. It was just too terrified and it died. At the site of the bloody pond the noisy family was there again getting into my shot and posing to have their own picture taken. No respect. Serenity shattered. I made some photographs after they left and moved on. I worked about two hours and was getting tired so we left. I had intended to return the next day but I had a very restless night. Finally the dawn came and I decided to cut my losses and get out of there and return home, the project was completed.
What emerges from the work in these pages is the awareness of how visually rich and historically important these places of sacred beauty are for our Nation. Gone is the terrible destruction of war, the torn earth, the broken trees, the smell of death and black powder. Trees and grass have serenely covered the hills and rills of breastwork forts and gun emplacements. Yet, the feelings of ghostly profundity remains. My intention is to bring some of this awareness to the public in order to better appreciate these places where such a great struggle of ideas took place. I hope that I have begun to bring something to the populace in the form of photographic preservation, the awareness of history, and God's healing mercy.
A. J. Meek
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