Art

A Photographer Retraces the Underground Railroad’s Secret Routes

Midwestern artist Jeanine Michna-Bales’ latest photo series, Through Darkness to Light, is the result of 14 years of research and 1,400 miles of travel along former routes of the Underground Railroad.

Jeanine Michna-Bales, “Decision to Leave” (2013)(Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection)

The subjects of Jeanine Michna-Bales’ latest series of photographs, Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad, are difficult to make out. The forests, houses, barns, rivers, and fields captured in these images are shrouded in darkness, lit only by the moon and stars. Presenting these subjects obscured by night might seem antithetical to the artist’s explicit aim in this project, which is to provide a visual account of the Underground Railroad, about which much has been written, but little has been visually documented. Yet it is precisely by way of darkness that Michna-Bales invites us to imagine the lived experiences of the estimated 100,000 enslaved people who navigated the Underground Railroad’s network of secret routes and safe houses during the mid-19th century. By deploying darkness in each of her photographs, she stages a reckoning with actual and imagined Underground Railroad sites while also calling attention to how critical Black geographies are often eclipsed from view.

Jeanine Michna-Bales, “Keep Going” (2014)(Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection)

A one-room exhibit at the Philips Collection in Washington, DC features 13 photographs that recreate one route of escape from Louisiana to Ontario, Canada. Michna-Bales pieced together this route using an assortment of historical records, slave narratives, academic scholarship, and oral histories. This slim but striking display represents only a brief glimpse into the more than 100 photographs the artist shot as part of this photo series. During her childhood, the Indiana native not only learned about the Underground Railroad as part of her formal education, but also encountered routes that ran across backyards in the midwest.

The series, a product of 14 years of research and over 1,400-miles traversed by Michna-Bales herself, represents an attempt to consider the journey of the Underground Railroad from the perspective of those who walked it for a chance at freedom. As such, none of the photographs include people. Instead, the frames stand replete with dense, heavy atmospheres and various gradations of blackness that evoke the nighttime conditions through which enslaved people passed and the ongoing dangers they faced. 

Jeanine Michna-Bales, from “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” (2019) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Arranged from south-to-north, the exhibit begins with a map where the artist charts the route from Louisiana to Canada captured in the photographs. Some of the photographs, such as “Decision to Leave,” which features Magnolia Plantation in Cane River, Louisiana, and “Look for the Gray Barn Out Back,” shot in Centerville, Indiana, feature actual sites still in operation today or places confirmed by the current occupants as former stops on the Underground Railroad. These images, which Michna-Bales scouted out during the day and shot during the night, only use light to the extent that it illuminates the frames of the buildings and surrounding foliage. While the photographs call attention to significant historic locations, they also bring into focus a looming darkness that threatens to overtake the frame, just as it overtook each passing night before breaking into a new day. 

In some cases, the photographs’ titles seem as important as the scenes they capture. Titles such as “Keep Going,” “Within Reach,” and “Hiding Out” recall phrases one might imagine Underground Railroad travelers said to each other during their flight — mantras intended to keep the faith and the fight alive. 

Jeanine Michna-Bales, “Off the Beaten Path” (2014)(Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection)

Most interesting, however, is how the well-lit map that initially previews the route sits in stark contrast to the dark images that follow it. The map crumbles in the face of black sites and black sights that it can never wholly capture; that its flattened cartography threatens to render insignificant. Photographs such as “Off the Beaten Path” and “Cypress Swamp” give texture and scope to water geographies like the Yockanookany River in Mississippi and the Middle Mississippi, respectively, where people waited and waded, where freedom seekers submerged for safety. The varied shades of blackness in these images – the blue-black of the aquatic, the brown-black of the scattered foliage, the yellow-black of the water lilies, for instance – lends them an unmatched depth that a map seldom contains. Each digital chromatic print glimmers ever so slightly with light and life, despite a persistent darkness that never fully disappears.

When Michna-Bales conceived of this series more than ten years ago, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center had not yet been created, and the Freedom Trails Initiative had not yet passed by Congress. Without such resources at her disposal, the artist faced a daunting task: representing the heretofore visually unrepresentable. Her relentless research resulted in a stunningly complex curation that reminds us that to really know history, we must strain to see it in all of its darkness and light. 

Through Darkness to Light: Photographs along the Underground Railroad by Jeanine Michna-Bales is on view at The Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street, NW Washington, DC 20009) through May 2, 2019. 

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