There are many ways to cultivate a feeling, an empathy, for the past. Both Sally Mann and Richard Barnes use similar 19th-century photographic processes to evoke it, but their images take the viewer different directions into history.
There’s a strong tradition of re-creating battles of the American Civil War. Richard Barnes does something interesting with his photographs of these re-enactments. They aren’t simple documentations; his photography is itself a re-enactment. Using a large-format camera with the same glass plate wet collodion process that 19th-century photogaphers used, his pictures have a similar visual quality to those of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. It’s like he is creating his own artifacts. But in these photographs we see people dressed in clothes that clearly weren’t around in the 19th century. And, unlike Brady and Gardner, Barnes has photographs of the action: guns emitting smoke, people running. None of this action was possible to capture with the 19th-century cameras and emulsions, cumbersome and slow as they were. Instead, the violence is depicted most vividly with photographs of the aftermath of bodies littering the ground, like the famous ‘Harvest of Death’ picture by Timothy O’Sullivan. But I don’t want to talk too much about these aftermath-with-bodies images here, as they connote another order of shock and horror that suggests a different discussion. Many photographs of the battle of Gettysburg from 1863 are more like this one, uncredited, depicting what seems like just a bare landscape devoid of people, giving no clue to the thousands of soldiers who were converging to fight:
[‘Gettysburg, Pa. View of Little Round Top’, 1863, photographer unknown, Library of Congress]
Here is another photograph, by Alexander Gardner, this time from Antietam in 1862, shot on the day of battle. We see traces of the imperfect collodion application around the edges (Gardner, or his assistant, would have had ten minutes to coat the glass plate, mount it in the camera, expose it, and develop it–all very fiddly under the best of conditions), the sky and clouds bleached out, an apparently empty landscape, and a solitary stationary human figure. This particular picture is doubled, probably intended as a stereogram. Like the previous picture, there are no visual clues about the impending battle–it’s only the caption, not the image itself, that provides the information about the significance of what we are looking at.
[‘Antietam, Md. Battlefield on the day of the battle’, 1862, Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress]
Richard Barnes’s photographs are not verbatim reproductions of the actual photographs, although they look at first like they might be. They are in black-and-white, and the slow exposure creates blurs wherever there is much movement. They have that same uneven emulsion on the edges, and producing an eerie blankness over the whole scene that comes from the lack of red sensitivity in the collodion (rendering skies and clouds as one undifferentiated mass). But look closer: this photograph at present-day Gettysburg depicts action happening in front of the camera. And closer still: there is a man in a bucket hat at bottom right of the frame, and a car in the middle of the field. Barnes is not copying Gardner, nor is he providing a sustained illusion about the authenticity of the scene. I suppose he’s showing what we’d see if we were at the re-enactment: people in costume recreating the battle and the support vehicles and loudspeakers for the benefit of spectators.
Even this photograph of a couple of people playing the Confederate General William Mahone and his wife Otelia has an SUV parked behind them. The studied nature of the portrait suggests that one could have framed the modern vehicles out; the fact that Barnes doesn’t suggests even more strongly that he wasn’t aiming to construct a visual simulacrum of 1863.
[‘Warren Swartz depicts Confederate Gen. William Mahone, and Jacqueline Renee Milburn plays Mahone’s wife, Otelia Butler Mahone. You can’t “relive a person’s life,” Milburn says, “but you can give a sense of it.”‘ 2012, courtey Richard Barnes]
The 19th-century Gardner photographs present a paradox: they are photographs taken at the actual locations and the actual times of the battles, but the don’t look like anything significant is happening. They are material artifacts from the past, but their very blankness to some extent keeps us a little disconnected (aside from feeling some kind of aura for having been Gardner’s photographs) from that past. Added to this is the visual strangeness of the images (those weird skies!), and there’s a risk that they maintain a certain distance from us.
Barnes’s pictures offer a connection to the past. Yes, there is the nostalgic quality that the process itself brings (and I imagine that Barnes himself felt quite connected to the 19th century as he was coating those glass plates), but there’s also something like a transference of vision with his pictures. The logic of photographic empathy which I’m suggesting goes like this: the present, which is real and alive, can look collodion-like–so the past, which also looks collodion-like, must have been also real and alive to its inhabitants. It’s not a new idea being introduced here, it’s a new feeling. If we accept that the present can be made strange, then perhaps by grasping that strangeness the past can be made familiar.
Sally Mann’s series ‘Battlefields’ also uses a wet-plate collodion process. Its traces are evident also in the edges and streaks and cracked glass. These pictures are of empty landscapes, and many look superficially similar to the Gardner landscape above of Gettysburg. But they are different. This one, taken at Antietam, with its ragged horizon and darker, less distinctive landscape (it’s hard to be sure from viewing it online how much of the texture in the picture comes from the glass plate or the field), makes for a more meditative approach, and is evocative of what is not in the picture. It’s unclear what it is we’re looking at, until the title of the work places it. Then, a whole history of conflict and death starts to pervade an image that is otherwise silent.
Because of the process, the photograph looks old, and this connects it to the past. The specific location goes further and connects it to a specific event, though: the Battle of Antietam, with over 20,000 casualties. This context evokes a feeling for the violence that occured on that quiet location and calls on the viewer to take an active imaginative leap into the past, into the reconstruction of a memory, while being aware that the photograph of the scene is of the present. Sally Mann has talked of the “serendipitous aspect” of this kind of photography,1 where she only has so much control over the outcome, and allows dust and imperfections to gather on the image. This adds to the dream-like quality of the pictures, and it also suggests the haziness of memory. The final appearance of the picture is serendipitous, but so too in some measure is the past it evokes; in both cases there is a giving up of control to something else, allowing something else to speak: the grass, the wind, perhaps the dead.
The historian Robert Rosenstone, in talking about how cinema portrays the past, argues that even if movies don’t always depict the past in a way that is accurate enough for some academic historians, they make the past meaningful by creating “works that vision, contest, and revision history”. 2 Richard Barnes and Sally Mann are doing at least the first and third of these. “To vision history is to put flesh and blood on the past”, Rosenstone says, “it is to give us the experience and emotions of the past”. With the collodion process, we get a sense of looking at the world as the early photographers must have seen it. Revisioning the past, though, goes a little further: it depicts “the past in new and unexpected ways […] making the familiar unfamiliar and causing the audience to rethink what it think it already knows.” Barnes, by showing us more than we might expect of a reenactment photograph (loudspeakers in the grass, cars pulling supplies in the background), makes us consider the equivalences of the past and present participants. Mann, by grounding us in a particular location but showing us less (what are we not seeing in that gloomy landscape?), makes us imagine the weight of death that pervades the place. Both series reach across the decades to create a sense of connection to the past. It’s as if these places have a memory of the events that once crossed them, and these photographs are attempts to stir those memories and put us into them.