A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the decision by the City of New Orleans to dismantle a number of monuments to Confederate heroes. “More memory not less,” was my plea. I developed that theme in an article that is now out on FaithLink, a United Methodist Curriculum. A portion of that article is on Ministry Matters.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Michael Mergen is a photographer of memory and landscape. His photos capture ordinary, even shabby parts of America and invest them with the meanings we place on them. So a series on the things businesses give as freebies to veterans (burgers, ice cream) and another on the things we name for war heroes (interstate highway bridges, stretches of commercial streets) becomes a silent commentary on our values.
At a recent exhibition at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, I was particularly taken with a series that imposes the image of highway historical signs over the contemporary landscapes of Virginia Civil War battlefields. So I gave Michael a call and the Farmville, Virginia-based photographer and professor at Longwood University gave me some time to talk about his work.
Can you tell me just a little bit about how you see your work? How would you describe what you do?
I’m a photographer who looks at ideas of America, or our idea of citizenship, or ideas of American history, American politics – looking at how those things are manifest in the landscape, to how landscape can reveal history, how landscape or space can reveal, or show, or point to some of these fragments of American culture, American civics, American citizenship. These recent works are more drawn to the landscape, but in some of the other work, looking at certain tiers, actual physical spaces that somehow speak to American civics and the American citizen.
So, the landscape you’re working in right now, [Southside Virginia], obviously influenced some of your projects, like the Civil War series. Is there one region that was kind of formative for you?
I grew up just outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and that’s still home. That’s where my family is…So, that landscape was home. I’d always been a student of American history and enjoyed that history, but never really was taken by the Civil War and never thought of that as more than just a part of the long, complicated American history.
Then, I moved to Virginia and it took quite a few years of being here to let some of that influence creep into the work.
This is obviously this pivotal event in American history. About half of it was actually fought here; and then, living in Farmville is like you’re living on Lee’s Retreat [in 1865 from Richmond]. So, I’ve seen some of the historical signs just doing other projects. I’ve see the signs driving around rural Oklahoma. Even in California and other places.
It was one of those things I kind of saw out of the corner of my eye–I was probably doing 60 miles an hour down some back road, and thought that the physical marking of a landscape was denoting some kind of historical significance to it. But then, so often what is being described there is absent from the landscape. Occasionally there’s a house, [but] usually it’s more of an oblique, invisible reference. So, with the signs, it’s one of those deep, backburner kind of ideas. With the Civil War sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, I was thinking about the war. I don’t have a connection to it, per se, but living in Virginia gave me, in some ways, permission point to it.
So, doing the signs, the rubbings, was fitted to my interest in landscape and the interest in history.
And you literally went out to those markers, and used a crayon to do a rubbing of the markers, and used that.
Yeah, so, I would photograph where the sign was and put myself within a reasonable distance. I didn’t have too many set rules. I started photographing where the sign was–sometimes, literally right next to the sign. Sometimes, it might be 100 feet down the road a little bit, or off the shoulder of the highway.
Then, I’d make a print back here at school that happened to be roughly the same size as that sign, and then take the print back to the sign and clamp it on using spring clamps. I’d do a crayon rubbing. I ended up using these jumbo, black crayons from Crayola. I’d go into Wal-mart and buy these 8 packs. My daughter would be like, “Dad, where are all the black crayons?” She was left with 7 jumbo ones but all the black ones were used up.
I’d do this rubbing over the print because I was interested in this collision of history and contemporary landscape, to get at the idea that these signs are speaking or pointing to something that is gone. We’re saying a hundred years ago this army passed through here, or, half a mile from here, a big battle happened, but there’s no trace of it. There’s nothing. So, I’m interested in the visual disparity of that.
In some of the ones where the landscape feels more contemporary, the ones that are closer to Petersburg, where you’re photographing the parking lot of a Walgreens, if you have an advertisement for Walgreens sale on potato chips, if you have that text colliding, literally, with a description of Lee giving the order to retreat. Those contemporary collisions are interesting to me. Or the one with gas stations and the price of gas, and the ads for vaping and the e-cigarettes. You get very contemporary images and text colliding with text about Sheridan’s men or this troop brigade or that troop brigade. That was interesting to me.
Also, the ones where it was really rural, and where I’m looking at the landscape thinking, “Gosh, this probably looks the same as it did 150 years ago.” So, having both of those exist together in the series was interesting to me to talk about the way landscape has rapid change or how in some ways it has remained unchanged.
It’s such a great, visual way to place memory in the picture. To have those words kind of hanging over it is a powerful image.
It comes out of a tradition in photography where people are interested in pointing the camera at a place that has some kind of historical or social/political significance. But then, the challenge is always—how do you let the viewer in on the idea without relying exclusively on the text? So you look at 20 photographs and say, “Okay, those are interesting photographs.” And then, the text says, “Oh, X, Y, and Z happened there.” Sometimes that can drive you back to the text to look at it, but that’s also been done. So, this was a way of still engaging in that commentary but doing it in a more direct way, where the piece could be able to stand on its own and be a bit more self-evident.
Michael Mergen’s work can be found at http://www.mimages.com.