At first glance, the crisp photographs of Jeanine Michna-Bales appear as straightforward nighttime landscapes, capturing nature in serene, awesome scenes. But far from simple, these images are loaded with history and meaning: Each one records a place along the Underground Railroad that the Dallas-based photographer identified and visited. Beginning in 2012, Michna-Bales journeyed from plantations in Louisiana to safehouses in Kentucky to the border between Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario, retracing the steps of fugitive slaves, guides, messengers, and other activists as they sought or fought for freedom.
One hundred of her photographs comprise Through Darkness to Light, a new book published by Princeton Architectural Press. (The images, too, will traverse the country, going on display in a traveling exhibition that ends in 2021.) The book features a brief history of the development of the Underground Railroad and its legacy, written by historian Fergus M. Bordewich, and related archival material, but Michna-Bales’s images explore the famous passageway in an unprecedented way. Her contemporary perspective stirs our senses, with the quiet environments inviting us to not only reflect on these covert, risk-filled voyages but to also imagine ourselves embarking on one of our own.
“Much has been written about the Underground Railroad, but there is scant visual documentation,” Michna-Bales writes in an introduction. “The goal of this photographic series is to evoke a sense of one journey out of bondage; to capture what it may have felt like to run in fear for roughly three months in pursuit of freedom.”
Michna-Bales, who grew up in the Midwest, recalls how some routes associated with the Underground Railroad ran through backyards she knew in her youth. She dove much deeper into its history a few years ago when a librarian at the Indiana Historical Society Library shared with her a file of articles and historical documents related to the slave-freeing network. Studying these alongside other resources, she learned about various individuals, routes, and cities connected to the Underground Railroad and began photographing sites she managed to identify. Through the Darkness to Light documents a 1,400-mile path that stretched from Louisiana to Ontario.
Scouted by day and shot at night, these places are gloomy and lonely, with no bodies present to enliven them. Many photographs are difficult to make out without close scrutinity, captured under low light and printed on black pages that emphasize their dark tones. While beautiful, they of course immediately become foreboding once you know their past significance: the labyrinthine foliage of a forest of pines is also a thicket of uncertainty; lights illuminating a house could suggest safety but also danger. Many of Michna-Bales’s titles also contribute to the disquieting tone of her narrative, imbuing their images with chilling action, such as “Wading Prior to Blackness,” “Catching a Breath,” and “Waiting for the Call of the Hoot Owl.” Titles like “Fleeing the Torches” and “Avoiding the Coyotes” are much more redolent of specific horrors.
Organized by state to capture the south-to-north journey, the series gradually brightens as it progresses. Moonlight and stars — which travelers used as navigation markers — provide most of the scant light in scenes of former slave states; they shine brighter and are accompanied by artificial light in Michna-Bales’s photographs of northern states. These also feature more buildings, such as the home of the abolitionist William Beard and other safe stations in Indiana and farms in Michigan. The book’s final two images are the only ones shot prior to nightfall: Capturing Canadian soil, they’re the brightest, with sunlight peeking through clouds.
We will never understand the experiences of those forced to flee to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad, but Michna-Bales’s series channels the emotions that ran through its routes through subtle but powerful visuals. Fear and desperation imbue many of her photographs, but there is hope filling others, which bursts into dazzling relief as we reach the end.