Thursday, May 19, 2011

Southern Spaces on the Civil War

The Civil War defines the American South more profoundly than any other historical event. What one makes of it, how one is connected to it, how one thinks of the past, the present, and the future in relation to it, are all at the core of our sense of Southern identity, Southern culture, Southern meaning, Southern prospects.

Southern Spaces does fine work, and this week it has published a very thoughtful essay by Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond comparing the observation of the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War versus the way it was done at the 100th anniversary fifty years ago.

Ayers evokes the work of photography when he reaches his conclusion about "the problem of memorializing contested and painful history":

"No matter how much organizers strive to acknowledge the profound human costs and stakes in the Civil War, the programs are, inevitably, unequal to the task. Words and symbols and good will, museums and lectures and conversations, cannot atone for centuries of injustice, and no one thinks they can. No integrated church service, concert, or program, no matter how powerful, can or should erase history. Skeptics of all political persuasions can easily cast every representation of the war and slavery as inadequate, which of course they are.

"Monuments have fallen mute. Our faith in buildings and enduring symbols has been shaken. No one knows what a statue of the contradictions at the heart of the American Civil War might look like, how to symbolize a war that began so haphazardly, that cost such an unanticipated loss of lives, that ended with the surprising and precious redemption of emancipation. The technicolor clarity of 1961 has turned to muted sepia, the image blurred at the borders. The subject demands a more powerful lens and a steadier focus than we possess."

Photography has been central to the imagining and imaging of the American South since before the Civil War. Accepting Ayers' point that no one knows what a [work of art] that captures the contradictions at the heart of the American Civil War -- and thus Southern culture -- might look like, are there photographers who have done a better than average job of this?

Aaron nominates Sally Mann's Battlefields series, so I've included one of her images from Antietam, above. Other nominations, Please. 

1 comment:

  1. I think the Civil War and its affect on the landscape is still fused in with Southern culture. One of my photography instructors at school, a fellow North Carolinian, once told me, she always puts "blood in my shadows" in her black-and-white darkroom prints. This became a sort of conceptual underpinning for selenium-toning the shadow-areas in her photographs.

    And it's true, the pains on ancestry and the landscape ring true. As well as the paranoia and stigma attached to the Civil Rights Movement alluded to in Ayers' article.

    Other than Sally Mann's "Battlefields" series, another photographer that comes to mind is the work of Jessica Ingram, who photographs, more or less, contemporary and personal "battlefields" amidst an overarching political statement.

    Thanks for publishing this blog; I recently encountered it and I've been following it keenly.