Thursday, May 19, 2011
Southern Spaces on the Civil War
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.