To be so dedicated to one thing can sometimes be isolating… unless, you are a re-enactor of a bye gone time. Whether it be a huge piece of history or just a small intimate moment, to the enthusiast it seems just like yesterday. Their wealth of knowledge can be just as transforming as their choice of costume.
I had the privilege of shooting a piece of history at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ as part of the Adventures in Photography meet-up group led by Boris Hardouin-Deleuze. While very small in contrast to a Civil War event which spanned several miles and had hundreds of participants, this firsthand event was no less important to the enthusiastic volunteers. Set during the Revolutionary War, the location depicted a small encampment, complete with tents and the life that transpired around it. The venue and time of day forced me to compose in small snippets rather than the grand scheme so often envisioned in large-scale events. I also choose to edit and develop my captures with a similar recipe. This recipe came about from experimentation and my inner vision of what the event spoke to me as a photographer. Through the use of filters in NIK software, and finishing touches in Lightroom, I was able to apply this to each of my compositions. While true to my vision, the actual events from that time period might take on a more drab, less polished and even dated place in history. This manipulation… recreating a past event, fits my vision and passion for documenting what was seen with what I envision my path in photography to be about.
CAUSE… one definition really sums it up for me : “a principle, aim, or movement that, because of a deep commitment, one is prepared to defend or advocate.”
In any country the mention of the word WAR brings up many opinions and emotions but mention “Civil War” and you get a deeper connection to it, be it via history, location or DNA. My visit to New Market, VA brought on a combination of all three.
My initial plan, born out of dreams of being a photo journalist at one time, was to really give a feeling of the loss and grittiness of war in this place. To shoot alongside the soldiers on the battlefield…. (sound of screeching tires)… I was abruptly awakened from my dream of grandeur when I had to inquire about the yellow tape and fences that seemed to prevent me from my task. A man dressed in official period garb informed me that this re-enactment was as true to what actually happened and, unless I was of period dress and carried a working camera from that time, my place would be on the sidelines. As it turned out, the sidelines rekindled in me a vision of curiosity and, with my gift of gab I proceeded to stop and question various people dressed in full period clothing. What I received was everything from, hey what kind of camera is that, to where are you from and everything in-between. This personal type of interaction forced me to envision portraits and open up my subjects to create a history lesson about the time and place. The more I shot and listened, the more this place came alive, helping me realize this battle was one of the last Confederate victories and that control of this area had to do with food to feed the vast amount of troops there and in the future. I was treated throughout the day to a living history that would have been lost within the benign pages of a high school lesson. The conversations enlightened me to the loss and courage that had occurred just yards away. Eventually the barriers melted away and vignettes appeared, punctuated by the cannon’s deafening fire.
The thinking of which side one was on, quickly disappeared, once I fully immersed my self into the personal side… the side that today is only talked about and remembered after so many years of loss… the cause seems to almost disappear when the lens captures faces, actions, and sometimes even the whispers that are interwoven into a reenacted part of our history.
In the past 2 months I had a very rewarding experience to do some photo shoots with Matt Christopher. Imagine being able to go up into an attic and rummage through books and objects from past eras that you grew up in… that is how it felt to me. The three places I visited below, brought back this deja vu type of experience to me. Looking through the lens and bringing back past life events, seemed very real to me at the time. Each room or object had a story that I hoped could be awakened through my compositions. I divided my visits into three sections that would represent each place visited.
The first was an abandoned slate mine. I had visions of going deep into the earth of the actual mine, only to be slapped back to reality when our guide explained that all the water from the winter flowed down into what looked like a football sized shaft, no tunnels or rails down into the earth… still frozen. The exploring of what was left, provided many vignettes of the past… from machinery and patterns of rust, to the left over slate mine just yards away.
The next chapter, from this ‘blast back to the past’, was found not far from where I live… an old theater in the city. Trying to find parking in an area that has not seen the best of times in quite a while, proved an adventure in itself. What struck me, from the minute I entered, was how colorful this place was. It still had more than enough dirt, dust and cracks to keep me entertained for the rest of the day. The back stage was a favorite of mine, as just looking out to the seats one could easily envision a packed house for the opening night of a movie. Exploring the rooms was a real treat, especially the projection room. ‘Whoa’, did that bring back memories of my being a projectionist back when film was shown on 20 minute reels and you had to switch from one projector to another.
Last in my odyssey of reliving the past, proved to be my most creative… an immense lace company in the middle of a steel town. The sheer size was evident when I was given a map and cell number in order to reach both the guide and our instructor. We were told to buddy up in order to lessen our chances of getting lost…. well 10 minutes in and we were both lost. The many levels and pass-throughs, some blocked and others just passable, proved both exciting and frustrating. To give you an idea of just how large this place is…. it had its own bowling alley and gym, complete with a stage for its workers. Creating in this environment was a joy, from the large open rooms to reflecting pools of perfectly calm water, it seemed to bring back both the echoes and activities of days gone by.
Each of these venues not only let me chronicle my explorations but to also bring back a memory of my past… reawakened through the lens and somehow brought back to life… truly unforgettable on so many levels.
I was treated to an early gift this season… it was a dusty, old, dark, and very magical treat to this photographer’s eyes. The present I am referring to, was my visit to the last intact silk mill left in the US. Built in 1907, and known as Klotz Throwing Company, it is located in Lonaconing, MD which is about a five and a half hour drive from where I live.
On rare occasions, you can feel a presence of history in a place. I felt it instantly, when I set foot inside this mill. What also set the mood was the ambient light I had to work in. The smell and feel of a past life lets your thoughts drift back to when it was a booming factory. Seeing the thousands of spools, and their links to the machinery, led you to actually imagine the sounds and visualize the people who had worked on the factory floor.
Throwing, as used in the name of the mill, constituted pulling and twisting the raw material into a thread that was used in the making of garments and later parachutes. By the 1920’s, the mill employed 359 workers. Just imagining that many people in the factory, made you realize how it must have been an incredibly busy place. The town alone, with its tiny twisting streets, seemed to be developed and tied to a company mindset where everything and everyone relied on the factory. A railroad passed through the center of town which helps to better understand its location since, WV coal mines were not very far down the road. Klotz Throwing Co., just like the Nation, went from feast to famine during the depression which was closely followed by WW II.
The mill went through a number of growing spurts that saw sanctions on raw silk from Japan, which almost closed the facility, to the start of a synthetic silk called rayon. By the 1950’s, silk demand was dwindling and the workers’ pay had also declined. In 1957, due to the poverty level of wages, they decided to strike and without warning, the owners closed the factory. The mill was shut down so quickly that to this day when you arrive on the second floor, you can still find a room with bins of shoes and other personal belongings. This sudden abandonment lends to the atmosphere of human trauma and decay that you can still feel permeates the building.
We see it throughout our nation… factories and businesses, both large and small are closing. Like a spider’s web, each thread spun is interconnected and leads to the center. The heart of our society is also woven one thread at a time. That thread of life is not just a single factory in Lonaconing but also one that connects us to each of the families that worked there. This emotion is as prevalent today as it was on that factory floor, where each incomplete severed piece of silk thread represents a family’s hopelessness…. or rebirth.