|Written by Leo Hsu|
|16 Feb 2012|
“Why is it that the sites of labor massacres across the country are little known and obscure?” asks Andrew Lichtenstein. “These are choices that we make: to make the Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence these giant tourist attractions. What we choose to remember and why we choose to remember it is what makes us who are." In his study of Landscapes of American History, Lichtenstein presents a view on history that goes against the grain of the narratives that we hear in election years (and increasingly, that we hear all of the time), that America and Americans want or should want the same things or believe the same things, and that America’s destiny as a country has followed a clear or necessary trajectory. This project has value because Lichtenstein recognises that how past events are memorialised is at least as important as decisions about what is memorialised.
Cross Keys, Virginia. There is no marker or monument at Cabin Pond, a small swamp in rural Southampton County, Virginia, where the slave Nat Turner first received a vision that it was his assigned task to free America's slaves with a rebellion. Cabin Pond is also where Turner planned the rebellion in the summer of 1831 and where he fled to hide after its failure several weeks later. He was captured about a mile away. Turner's rebellion so terrified slave owners in the region that they attempted to erase it from history, as well as enacting new laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
Avoiding too studied a stance, Lichtenstein creates the opportunity for connections between three moments: the moment at which something happened, the moment in which the photographer made the picture, and the moment in which the audience encounters the project. The pictures are made in such a way that a connection between audience and historical subject that will extend beyond the experience of these pictures is encouraged, even as there is no attempt to disclaim the photographer’s subjectivity; this is an overtly activist documentary photography, aiming to provoke consciousness and to build counter-discourses. It’s Lichtenstein’s attempt to draw attention to events of which there is little visual record, but it’s also a record of his own journey to acknowledge these histories.
The Landscapes of American History project is a kind of “anti-photojournalism”, drawing attention to the constraints of photojournalism as it is practiced professionally, industrially. Photojournalists invest a great deal of energy in being in the right place at the right time. We praise them for this while at the same time we question whether pictures taken in the midst of the action tell us the whole story, or enough of the story, or if these pictures reduce the story to the action, allowing the publishing industry to determine which moments will be preserved in our memory. The project responds to those limitations by taking a longer view, and organised around a measure of time and distance.
Addressing the relationship between past and present, these pictures are not about being there at the right instant, although many of them do establish a powerful sense of moment. That is, they are not telling because they have condensed time and visible relationships, but because they provide room to imagine the expansion of time, and a connection to the past through looking at contemporary photographs. As Lichtenstein reminds us, the way in which you look at the past shapes how you look at the present.
On July 7th, just outside of Blair, West Virginia, James Weekly, the last resident of Pigeon Holler, is visited by a friend. James, a former coal miner, refuses to sell his land to mining companies which are seeking to strip mine the mountain he lives on to remove billions of dollars worth of coal. Blair Mountain is a historic site because of a 1921 battle between union coal miners and hired company guns. The state of West Virginia, under pressure from coal companies, has refused to list the mountain as an historic site to be preserved and plans to continue mining the area are moving forward. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
History is full of loose ends that are selectively ignored and purposefully forgotten in order to tell the clear, streamlined stories that politicians need to tell in order to create confidence among their supporters. One of these loose ends is James Weekly, a former West Virginia coal miner who refuses to sell his land to mining companies, another kind of invisible man made visible by this project. Lichtenstein observes that while these loose ends are frayed, that they would be easily forgotten or ignored, they speak to the movements and struggles that have defined if not the fact, then at least the possibility, of liberty and justice for all.