The medium of photography is so intrinsically linked to the transformation of subject and the manipulation of reality. I have spent my adult life clinging to a camera, my eye searching and searching for photographs of places and other people that I rarely allow myself to step in front of the camera, to allow myself to be seen in any other way besides what is represented to me in my head. I fear cameras and their steady gaze in the hands of the untrained for fear of seeing myself as I really am, physically.
In November, I had the pleasure of sitting for R.J. Gibson, a photographer working in the tradition of the wet plate process. I knew when I went to his studio I wasn’t interested in being photographed as a typical female of the 19th century, not in ballgown nor in day dress. I definitely knew that I wanted to be dressed as a male character; originally I figure I would be dressed as a Confederate infantry soldier.
While I know that “reenactment” photographs can conjure up unpleasant associations for a lot of people, Gibson’s process of making the photograph for the subject was really incredible to witness. The final portrait is very much a collaborative work. In talking to him, he figured out a way to photograph me as my 19th century alter in a way that was both fun and thoughtful. After telling him that I was a photographer, he felt it would be better to dress me up as a photographer from the 1800’s. I got to pose next to a gorgeous piece of photographic history, an 8×10 wooden view camera with original lenses, constructed around 1865. The photograph it’s self had an exposure of about 14 seconds. I could blink and breathe but my eyes could not move. It was strange to stand in front of a camera lens and be photographed for a full 14 seconds. While my mind was totally blank while standing in front of the camera, I couldn’t help but wonder if, somehow, 14 seconds could somehow capture something more than 1/30 of a second could.
Last weekend, A. Kilton and I headed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a nerdy weekend full of Civil War history. Pointing the car further west into the state, we took route 222 to route 30 (the Lincoln Highway, appropriately), which takes one through the southeastern region of PA, through the heart of Amish country and over one of the widest parts of the Susquehanna River. It felt like August on Saturday, a haze hung on the horizon line as mid-day temperatures reached nearly 85 degrees. After a brief stop over at a Sonic Drive-In and a nice long winding trip to the center of Gettysburg, we rolled into the newly built visitors’ center around 1. We drug our feet through the center and the gift shop, gawking at the embroidered pillows, Lincoln Attired Boyd’s Bears, and other tasteless overpriced items that gift shops offer up to consumers in the guise of “cute” and “historic”. We purchased The Travelbrains’ Gettysburg Expedition Guide, some much needed soda and headed out to start the tour.
I should probably also note that, no matter what we do, no matter how fast we do or do not travel, no matter the determined departure or destination time, we stretch seemingly short trips into hours. 2 hour trips become 4. A cross-country trip would probably take us years. This is why it took us nearly 6 hours to complete a 3 hour audio tour. We split it up over the two days we were there so it wasn’t as long but by the time we got to the site of Pickett’s Charge on Sunday, I was more than content to buy my Union kepi, type in the directions for a return stop to the Sonic into the Garmin and get the hell out of Dodge.
While trying to find the first stop on the tour (the writers and producers of the CD clearly assume that you know what you’re doing and how to navigate the roads of an otherwise generic small town in Pennsylvania, making things more difficult than they need to be), it took me very little time to figure out that I wanted to photograph the strange transparency of a place like Gettysburg. I wanted the photographs to talk about the beauty of the landscape and how it intersected with this Really Important History as well as a booming tourist industry. I wanted to talk about the strange experience of coasting at 35 miles an hour through rolling hills and grassy fields with about 100 other cars and buses, witnessing the same view of history, trying to picture the immensity of the three day battle at Gettysburg that changed the course of the Civil War.
I say “I wanted to” because I didn’t go with my gut instinct when I left my apartment on Friday morning saying “You forgot something” and managed to neglect checking the battery in my camera and leaving my battery charger tucked away in my desk. Nikon being the company they are, decided to manufacture no two camera battery chargers the same and thus, my camera died about 10 minutes into the second day.
Anyways, it had been a long time since I’d been to Gettysburg. My twelve year old brain didn’t remember the immense amount of space or the beauty of the landscape. It also didn’t recall what a strange point of intersection that Gettysburg is. History, tourism, reenactment, landscape attract a strange, wide-ranging group of people. Families with bored teenagers, Union and Confederate re-enactors in full costume, bikers bedecked in their finest leather jackets (PA’s state roads are long and smooth, with uninterrupted views), older couples and newly weds (or at least newly-in-love), ghost hunters, history buffs, the curious and the greyhounds.
Audio Tour Stop Number One: McPhearson’s Ridge.
Without a camera to pressed to my eye, I had problems processing what I was witnessing; without a frame to, well, frame things, my brain went to other places. I spent the time while A. Kilton was out wondering around at every other stop, stretching my legs and groaning over my sunburn, thinking about what it means to be in a place with a “living history”, debating the pros and cons of being a Civil War re-enactor, considering my next path of research obsession, going over a list of things to take photographs of next time I’m there. I also spent a large majority of the time contemplating just what exactly I wanted to get from a trip to a Civil War battlefield, besides a sweet coffee mug with the Gettysburg address printed on it, a nasty sunburn and a nice new hat.
I wanted to experience the feeling of Something Huge Happened Here in 1863 while shifting into 4th gear in 2008. I wanted to feel that so-called living history that is touted in tourist brochures and on billboards. I won’t say that I didn’t have really amazing time, because I did, I just didn’t get that overwhelming Important feeling that I had hoped for. And I won’t say that I’m not interested in going back, because I definately am. I want to go to the reenactments this summer. I would love to expand my Civil War battlefield tours to Antietam and Vicksburg. Hell, I’d love to do a Civil War road trip, marking off each important battle with a stop over for meandering, picture taking and thinking about History. I just had expected to feel something bigger than me, bigger than now but it fell short. Or maybe I did.
Looking out across the view from Devil’s Den from Little Round Top, watching small figures get in and out of their cars, I thought about the manufactured sounds of cannon and rifle fire on the guide CD and tried to picture what this place would be like without roads and tour stops. Like A. said “I want a history filter so I can actually see what it would look like then, without all of these people and cars and paved roads everywhere. I think I’d actually get it then.” Experiencing history in a car with a CD makes it just that much more difficult to understand. It removes the sense of place from that place so much that the only thing you can hear is fake cannon fire and the occasional slam of a car door, not that quiet suggestion of Important that I usually get from a place so heavy with past. The 19th century battlefield is just a blur along the 21st century landscape witnessed like everything else: from a car, filed away with vacation photographs and fake parchment copies of the Gettysburg address.
That said, I am glad that Gettysburg has this weird, esoterric culture surrounding it and it’s past. I’m really glad it didn’t go the way most places of the Civil War went, as examined in Killing Ground: The Civil War and The Changing American Landscape. I actually love that an otherwise po-dunk Pennsylvanian town has a bright spot in the history of the U.S. I love the gift shops and re-enactors*, the kitsch and the strange intersection of now and then that goes on there. I’m just not entirely sure it brought me closer to a better understanding of the United States and the world in 1863.
*A. Kilton and I actually had a conversation at one point in the car about the merits of dating a war re-enactor. Could you really date someone that was a Confederate? What about a British soldier? Does that say something about them?
Although, given my propensity for rejection of gender roles, I’ve been pondering the strange possibility of becoming a Union Infantrymen or if I could ever ride a horse, a member of the Calvary, since they have better jackets. It’s an expensive hobby to get into but also strange and wonderful. I’ve since added it to my List of Things to Do When I am Independently Wealthy.