The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC is showing a series of photographs that Jeanine Michna-Bales has taken on key points along the Underground Railroad. She captures these images at night, as if to illustrate what enslaved people would have experienced as they made their way north. This is the project website.
Online reproductions do no justice to her original photos, which are amazingly luminous chromogenic prints; they grab your attention from across the room.
The forests, rivers, starry skies, and swamps are beautiful–a challenging sensation, since the overall topic of the series is human evil and resistance. Even while people persecute other people, the moon still glows through lush canopies of leaves. Although the natural settings are enjoyable to see in a museum, they would have been frightening at the time–try to imagine crossing a Mississippi swamp by night, even if there weren’t bloodhounds and shotguns behind you.
Most of the signs of human habitation are points of refuge along the way; they look inviting. Michna-Bales accentuates lights left in windows to welcome fugitives. Yet arriving at each “station” must have been a moment of terror, because who knew whether it had been compromised?
The view across the Ohio River into a deeply dark Indiana symbolizes the uncertain future–if one can get that far. (I illustrate this post with a different view, across the Tennessee River in Alabama.)