Dark night of the soul
Photographing the Underground Railroad
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.”
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