How A Contemporary Photojournalist Captured The Landscapes Of The Civil War
New York photojournalist Michael Falco first started working with pinhole cameras as an antidote to today's technology-obsessed world. But he soon realized that this low-tech early camera type, invented in the 16th century, would be a perfect way to document the Civil War landscapes he'd been reading about.
He spent the next few years traveling to Civil War battlefields whenever he could, and the results are collected in the book Echoes of the Civil War, just out from The Countryman Press. We recently spoke with Falco about the book; here's an edited and condensed version of our conversation, as well as a selection of his photos for this project.
Were you a Civil War buff before you started working on this book, or was it more the pinhole cameras that got you interested in this topic?
A little bit of both. Last year I was cleaning out my mom’s house, and I found a book report from second grade about Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. So I was fascinated by these characters from an early age. Around 2009 I realized the sesquicentennial was approaching, and I thought it would be a good time to start reading about the Civil War. So I spent a couple years just reading. I became so fascinated with the fact that the landscapes where these events happened are all over the country and are so accessible to people.
[At the same time] I had been working with the pinhole camera. I felt a little overwhelmed with all the imagery we see today, with Facebook and Instagram. My reaction to that was to work with the most elementary camera you can work with. I wanted to slow [the process] down.
I fell in love with how these cameras render landscape. Because they have no lens, they have this amazing ability to take away all those distractions of detail and give you a canvas where everything in the scene is treated the same. It lets you view the feeling of that landscape.
This book is very personal. You talk about your own experiences at the battlefields, including the fact that you ended up becoming a re-enactor yourself. Was that your original intent?
It wasn’t. I left New York to go on my first trip for this project, to Manassas Battlefield [shown at top]. I spent a week there. On my last day, there was a group of re-enactors who were volunteering for the National Park Service. One casually mentioned that his great-great-grandfather had fought on this battlefield.
After talking to these re-enactors and realizing they had this DNA connection, I [understood that] the re-enactments are like grand historic performance art pieces. There's a familial duty to remember the sacrifices made in the war.
For my next trip, down to Tennessee to the battlefield at Shiloh, there was a big 150th anniversary re-enactment happening there. I bought a ticket for it. When I arrived, I was completely blown away. First of all, there were [thousands of] re-enactors at this event. So the woods were just filled with period-dressed people. I was behind the spectator rope, like everyone else.
To get good images I knew I had to be up close to what was going on. And then my next thought was, okay, I have to become a re-enactor. That started the challenge. There’s no national group for these events. Every time I went to a re-enactment I had to negotiate with whoever was organizing it. It took a little time. But I made some friends along the way. There were some key folks I met who understood what I was trying to achieve.
I wasn't just out to make pretty pictures. I was actually trying to tell a story. So at that first re-enactment, I realized I couldn’t stand behind that spectator rope. I had to immerse myself completely.
What was that like?
It was a steep learning curve. My head was filled with the memoirs that I had read of the soldiers who fought in the war. A good deal of the soldiers were literate, so we have all these letters and journals, their direct words. So I had all of these impressions in my mind, and at the re-enactments I began to see some of the things I had read about.
Sam Watkins, a Confederate, wrote a famous memoir in which he talked about the battlefield as dreamlike—because the things that happen there are things we never see in real life. I pointed the camera at these events and all of a sudden they started to appear kind of dreamlike. So that was a good place to start.
Was there one battlefield that stood out the most for you?
Antietam comes to mind. It's in Sharpsburg, Maryland, and is probably the most beautiful Civil War battlefield we have in the country. The background is the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s just gorgeous, and it’s been completely preserved.
I was there at sunrise on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history. I met with some re-enactors who were volunteering for the Park Service there, and photographed them in the cornfield. This cornfield is famous; the corn that was growing there that day is still growing. The fact that I was able to set up my camera in that cornfield and photograph those re-enactors still gives me chills. It felt like a real sesquicentennial moment.
What was the end goal of the book?
My goal when I started, after reading all this material, was [to convey] this sense that the Civil War was not that long ago. The battlefields are out there and have been preserved for over a hundred years. The idea was that you can walk into these 19th-century landscapes in our midst and it's like stepping back in time.
But when I met the re-enactors and began to understand their ancestral connections to the period, the project began to evolve. Americans are still very connected to this war. Except today, when they end [a re-enacted battle], the two sides come across and shake hands and there’s this sort of cathartic experience that happens.
So me looking for the specter of this war became me finding this 21st-century Civil War landscape that still exists. It’s the landscapes and this DNA connection that’s still vital for people.