I’m so glad I obeyed my impulse at the stoplight in downtown Farmville, Virginia. I was driving through and stopped at a red light next to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts where a local photographer’s work was on display. I pulled into a parking spot and discovered Michael Mergen.
In the first part of my interview with Michael Mergen we explored a unique series in which he juxtaposed the text of historical markers with the contemporary landscapes associated with them. In this section of the interview we discuss the pairing of that Civil War series with a Civil Rights series and the lenses we bring to the world.
I begin here by referencing two other series he did related to things we give to veterans and places named for military personnel who died in the operation known as the Global War on Terror…
SPC Brian Scott “Scotty” Ulbrich Memorial Bridge, West Virginia, 2012 – photo by Michael Mergen
What lens do you bring to [your subjects] that gives you a sense of what you’re seeing? In your series of veterans pictures – what we give to veterans and what we name for veterans – I would look at them and say, “Wow, that is really shabby, and tacky, and ordinary.” And then I’m thinking, “Well, but you know, there’s a real democracy in that. They’re taking things that we use everyday.”
Right. My background was as a photojournalist and I come from a tradition of being neutral and trying to remain unbiased. As an artist, you have obviously more license to take a point of view and take a position. But I’ve always strived for at least a level of neutrality in my work, or a level of trying to present something ‘as is’ or as I found it, and framing it for viewers to then make their own conclusions.
There’s an intentional ambiguity in what I’m saying in my pictures that I’m conscious of. Again, trying to not make it about me or my opinion necessarily, but to highlight something that’s happening. Then, hopefully there’s a conversation out of that or even some disagreement can come out of that. Especially with the [Civil War] soldier monument one. I think that’s the one that you can approach from a “Wow, it’s just troubling that there are this many monuments that still exist out of sympathy with the political rationale for the war, and what happened after the war with Jim Crow laws and those kind of things.” But then, I think if you support that, if you look at that wall of photographs, you’d think, “Wow, isn’t that great, that in 2017, there’s still this quantity of monuments dedicated to this war and this movement that happened.” So, I think I’m okay with the different entry points that the work might provide.
In that Civil War piece, you chose an interesting part of those monuments to focus on: the face of all the soldiers. I’ve walked past those Confederate monuments my entire life and now I focus on the words that are written on them and I wonder why there’s not a similar set of monuments for the forgotten folks from that period and the monuments to the ending of slavery. But you chose the part of the statue that you hardly ever get close to—the face of the statue. I thought that was an interesting choice to use that. What did you learn by doing that?
Well, of course, you focus on the words, because you’re the writer.
Yeah, that’s right.
I look at the face because I’m a photographer. I learned that there’s a whole lot of them that had the same head on them. That I had no idea going into it. It wasn’t until I had photographed maybe 20 or 30 of them, and had them hanging up in the studio, and I was like, “Wow, these are the same heads.” A lot of these were ordered and assembled from a catalogue. So, the company would be like, “Okay, pick your head, pick your body. Do you want cannon balls or a cannon?” And they were sort of assembled that way. And that’s the way the a lot of them were made. There’s a handful that were commissioned by a sculptor or by an artist, but they didn’t dominate. So, a lot of them were the same head.
Then, also, they’re all white men, which is not surprise, but it’s also a little bit visually arresting. And I remember showing it to somebody at a photo conference, and they said, “These are archetypes for Colonel Sanders or a Johnny Rebel caricature in a way.” Is that figure the representation of the ideal Southern man? I thought about those headshots, doing portraits of these statues, and that was the knee-jerk thought that I had.
So, it’s also that using photography in a way to get you a little bit closer to something you couldn’t get to. A lot of these things are 30/40/50 feet up. You’re not really looking at them in that kind of detail. So, it was interesting just from a technical standpoint, and to use a certain lens and camera and position to get you this intimate look at just these faces.
You don’t know if there was an ur-model, do you?
There’s a book by a guy named Timothy Sedore. He wrote a book called An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Civil War Monuments. It’s really richly detailed of every monument down to every tablet, every plinth, every obelisk. I used that halfway through to better locate some of these. In there, it’ll give an historical description of the monuments, and you can track down who made it and the cost, and those types of things. But the one that I always come back to, there’s one in Portsmouth, Virginia that is four-sided.
I know it, yeah.
Portsmouth Confederate Monument
It’s right downtown there and in the description it was claimed that each figure was modeled after a veteran from Portsmouth, but you look at it—put them side by side—and you’re like, “There’s just no way.” There’s just no way that that was actually modeled after a veteran. I mean, maybe that was the case, maybe that was the hope, but it’s the same head as in half a dozen other moments.
So, there was a handful that were unique, like one in Lynchburg, for example. Lynchburg, maybe at the time, had more money to commission a sculptor or artisan, but I think in some of these more rural areas, they were happy probably to put something up, and if it looked like the one two counties away, well, no big deal, because a hundred years ago, chances are you don’t really go to that county.
photo by Michael Mergen
Going back to the crayon-inscribed photos in the exhibition [at the Longwood Center for Visual Arts], you had the Civil War series right across from the Civil Rights series, which was a really interesting juxtaposition, but what struck me is, having been to Selma and seen that landscape, how similar it is to the place where you are now. So what did you see as a connection there or a contrast?
Part of the connection was historical, in that the end of the Civil War, 1865, and the galvanizing moments of Civil Rights–it’s almost a hundred years later to the day. That was a strange coincidence, but they’re like two bookends, these two high water marks of American history—like a hundred years, within a week of each other.
So, that was part of it. It was just seeing how these two things worked together. In some ways, the end of the Civil War marked the inevitable beginning of the Civil Rights movement. I think a lot of the political decisions, the way the political landscape was shaped post-Reconstruction, led to a situation where there had to be the Civil Rights Movement.
But it’s also a nearby, Southern, historical journey from point A to point B, that had been marked with signs. So, it was logistically a way to continue the same process…The 50 year anniversary of Selma was coming up and Barack Obama was down there, and the movie came out. And I was like, “Oh, this could be another way of continuing this process, continuing this exploration of these marked historical landscapes.”
Michael Mergen’s series Confederate Heroes, Confederate Dead was featured in the Oxford American magazine.
Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his personal site: www.mimages.com.