Dark night of the soul

Pho­tograph­ing the Un­der­ground Rail­road

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PHO­TOGRAPH­ING THE UN­DER­GROUND RAIL­ROAD

Jea­nine Michna-Bales’ 2014 photograph Ap­proach­ing

the Sem­i­nary, taken near Spar­tan­burg, In­di­ana, is a gor­geous, dusky-toned close-up of liv­ing stalks of corn. But the aes­thet­ics of the view are not quite the point. This par­tic­u­lar corn­field evokes the ex­pe­ri­ence of flee­ing AfricanAmer­i­can slaves who may have shel­tered at night in such a place a cen­tury and a half ago. The photo is one in the se­ries re­cently pub­lished in Through Dark­ness to Light: Photographs Along the Un­der­ground Rail­road (Prince­ton Ar­chi­tec­tural Press) and now on ex­hibit at Photo-eye Book­store & Project Space.

“There are ac­tu­ally two rea­sons I took that im­age of the corn­field,” Michna-Bales said in an in­ter­view from her Dal­las home. “One is that the school­house for the sem­i­nary had been hit by a tornado a cou­ple of years be­fore, and they didn’t have the fund­ing to re­build, so I had to find an al­ter­nate photo there.

Her sec­ond rea­son for tak­ing the photograph was more spec­u­la­tive. “I had come across a story, or some­one’s rem­i­nis­cences, dis­cussing the fact that a group of free­dom-seek­ers had left one sta­tion [safe house] and were headed to an­other. But they found out it was be­ing watched by fugi­tive slave catch­ers and that the one they had left was also be­ing watched. So their con­duc­tors [guides] ac­tu­ally had to take them into a corn­field to stay the night. It was the neigh­bor’s corn­field, and they weren’t quite sure how the neigh­bors would feel about that, but they took the chance and went to talk to them and they were OK with it.” She men­tioned that there was a sher­iff named Wright Ray, south of Spar­tan­burg in Jef­fer­son County, who “used his of­fice as a fugi­tive slave catcher, and so there are a lot of sto­ries of him chas­ing peo­ple down and watch­ing all the sta­tions and of them out­smart­ing him.”

In her in­tro­duc­tion, Michna-Bales writes about the strange night­time lo­cales that were fre­quented by peo­ple on the Un­der­ground Rail­road, and about the sounds of frogs and coy­otes and the wind. The reader gets a sense of what it must have been like for those who had to move stealth­ily and ner­vously through the night. “Some of the places had more of a sense of the his­tory, like the plan­ta­tions, and it was

def­i­nitely dis­con­cert­ing be­ing out on the plan­ta­tions at night,” she said. “That open­ing shot in the book, De­ci­sion to Leave, Mag­no­lia Plan­ta­tion on the Cane River, Lou­i­si­ana, 2013, is a na­tional park now, but the park ranger went into the of­fice, so I was pretty much out there alone while I was shoot­ing it and the hairs on the back of my neck were stand­ing on end.”

Michna-Bales im­mersed her­self in the world of the run­away slave for years. Her ob­jec­tive was to cre­ate, as closely as pos­si­ble, a pho­to­graphic nar­ra­tive of the routes they took as they made their way north. Help­ing them were free blacks, an­ti­slav­ery whites, and other slaves, ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Fer­gus M. Bordewich, who con­trib­utes an es­say to the book. By the 1840s, the Rail­road was “a di­verse, flex­i­ble, in­ter­lock­ing sys­tem that op­er­ated with as­ton­ish­ing ef­fi­ciency but with­out cen­tral con­trol.” And it was grow­ing at the same time as Amer­i­can rail­roads, which be­came a sym­bol of the refugees’ move­ment and a source of un­der­ground ar­got. They be­came known “as ‘pas­sen­gers,’ the farm wag­ons in which they trav­eled as ‘cars,’ and the op­er­a­tion gen­er­ally as the de­liv­ery of ship­ments of ‘black ink,’ ‘in­digo,’ or ‘finest coal’ by ‘train,’ ” Bordewich writes.

The to­tal num­ber of refugee slaves who es­caped the South on the Un­der­ground Rail­road is unknown, but Bordewich writes that “a hun­dred thou­sand free­dom­seek­ers may have passed through its sta­tions in the six decades be­fore the Civil War,” al­though most were cap­tured and re­turned to slav­ery. One of the move­ment’s heroes is Har­riet Tub­man, who es­caped from slav­ery in Mary­land in 1849 and re­turned to that state re­peat­edly to serve as a con­duc­tor, trans­port­ing at least 70 slaves to free­dom.

Michna-Bales came to this sub­ject through her artis­tic dis­ci­pline. “My process as an artist is that I try to write three pages a day, and I don’t nec­es­sar­ily al­ways get to it. Some­times it’s a mat­ter of com­plain­ing about all the things I have to get done be­fore I board a plane or what­ever, but a lot of times I’m flush­ing out artist state­ments or try­ing to fig­ure out why I’m drawn to a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject. In the early 2000s, I was do­ing my pages and this idea came out: I won­der what it would look like, that walk to free­dom?” Her step­fa­ther’s sug­ges­tion that she visit the In­di­ana His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety Li­brary was aus­pi­cious. A li­brar­ian found a manila folder filled with news­pa­per clip­pings and other doc­u­ments about the Rail­road, which helped Michna-Bales zero in on par­tic­u­lar peo­ple, places, and routes. She also re­searched a col­lec­tion of thou­sands of in­ter­views with for­mer slaves that were con­ducted as part of the De­pres­sion-era Fed­eral Writ­ers’ Project.

Her ob­jec­tive was to photograph build­ings and nat­u­ral scenes along the route of the Un­der­ground Rail­road at night, when the free­dom-seek­ers trav­eled. Pho­tograph­ing in the dark presents spe­cial chal­lenges — for ex­am­ple, the “dig­i­tal noise” (un­wanted se­condary vis­ual ef­fects) that is some­times gen­er­ated by dig­i­tal-cam­era sen­sors. “This was ac­tu­ally my first foray into dig­i­tal,” Michna-Bales said. “My back­ground was with a 4x5-view cam­era with sheet film. I like a large depth of field: I wanted a blade of grass in the fore­ground to be in fo­cus like the trees in the dis­tance. The newer Canon cam­eras I got were pro­gres­sively bet­ter, but with the first one, the Canon 5D Mark II, a lot of what I was try­ing to do was be­yond the cam­era’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. With low-level light and a great depth of field, you’re gen­er­at­ing an amaz­ing amount of noise, so I had to fig­ure out ways around that. One tech­nique I used was to take the same scene 12 times and stack them in Pho­to­shop, be­cause I did some re­search and found that noise is gen­er­ated ran­domly, so if you stack them at dif­fer­ent opac­i­ties, it kind of takes the noise level away. With some, I lit­er­ally had to blow up the im­age 300 per­cent and use the [Pho­to­shop] clone tool and click out ev­ery piece of noise.

“In some of th­ese, I did ex­po­sures for the sky and the fore­ground and merged them to­gether. I think that’s what some­times gives it that painterly ef­fect, be­cause of me try­ing find a way around the tech­nol­ogy to get what I was look­ing for. There were a cou­ple images where I had to go back and re­take, be­cause there was way too much noise in them. But in one of them [Look for the Gray Barn Out Back. Joshua Elia­son Jr. barn­yards and farm­house, with a tun­nel lead­ing un­der­neath the road to an­other sta­tion, Cen­ter­ville, In­di­ana], they put vinyl sid­ing on the barn, so the im­age I had is the one I had to go with.” Her ef­forts were suc­cess­ful. Through

Dark­ness to Light re­ceived the Gal­lerist’s Choice award dur­ing CEN­TER’s 2014 Re­view Santa Fe Fes­ti­val.

Michna-Bales is now en­gaged in two more pho­tog­ra­phy-ori­ented projects. One that she started at the same time as the Un­der­ground Rail­road is ti­tled Fall­out: The Psy­cho­log­i­cal Im­pact of the Cold War on Amer­ica, ca. 1960. “In the re­search-based way I work, I found some de­clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion from the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis. I’m pick­ing out 14 cities, guess­ing about tar­gets that would crip­ple our coun­try’s econ­omy, like Detroit for its auto in­dus­try and Den­ver for NORAD. I’m look­ing for fall­out shel­ters that are in­tact or that haven’t been up­dated or that haven’t been torn down. There are pri­vate home shel­ters, gov­ern­ment shel­ters, pub­lic shel­ters, and busi­ness shel­ters.” An­other cur­rent project is The Bar­nett Shale: A

Frack-tured Land, which ref­er­ences a large nat­u­ral-gas field in Texas. “Af­ter we moved from San Fran­cisco, we thought we’d left earth­quakes, but we have been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing man­made earth­quakes from frack­ing. We’ve had 45 in Dal­las. So I’ve been pho­tograph­ing epi­cen­ters.”

Like the Un­der­ground Rail­road photos, the viewer’s com­pre­hen­sion de­pends on ac­com­pa­ny­ing text, be­cause the images ap­pear to sim­ply show places. “I’m there af­ter the fact of the frack­ing and typ­i­cally there’s not a lot of dam­age, but there’s one area that has ex­pe­ri­enced so many earth­quakes that they have a high-pres­sure oil pipe­line, and if it were to blow out, it would take out a school and houses and there’s a play­ground nearby, so I’m putting that in­for­ma­tion in the cap­tion. I’m on the oil and gas com­pa­nies’ radar now, so I don’t know how smart that is.”

de­tails

Through Dark­ness to Light: Pho­tograph­ing Along the Un­der­ground Rail­road; through July 15 Photo-eye Book­store & Project Space, 376 Gar­cia St., 505-988-5152

Some of the places had more of a sense of his­tory, like the plan­ta­tions, and it was def­i­nitely dis­con­cert­ing be­ing out on the plan­ta­tions at night.

— pho­tog­ra­pher Jea­nine Michna-Bales

The 1,400-mile path the Un­der­ground Rail­road took from Lou­i­si­ana to On­tario, Canada; inset, Fol­low the Tracks to the First Creek, just out­side Rich­land, a free black com­mu­nity, Stone Arch Rail­road Bridge, Ver­non, In­di­ana, 2013

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