Photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein is documenting sites important to America's past, with the idea that what he finds there reflects on what's important to people in the present.
Andrew Lichtenstein / Facing Change
Former coal miner James Weekly refuses to sell his land in Blair, West Virginia, to mining companies, which are seeking to strip mine the mountain he lives on to remove billions of dollars worth of coal.
Lichtenstein picked historical sites that were interesting to him, regardless of whether they were famous, infamous or obscure. “I’m not interested in George Washington crossing the Delaware,” he says. “I'm looking for events and sites that speak more to the struggle for civil rights, the largely undocumented or under-reported labor history in the U.S., and the conquest of the native people that were here.” Then he tried to make a picture of the historic site, but with the influence of the present.
"In some ways it's more interesting when you go there and you find nothing, no connection to the past," Lichtenstein says, "Like Nat Turner's cabin pond, where you go there and there's no sign, no signifier that you're in this historical place. The history was erased right after it happened, deliberately."
His visits to the historic sites raised a question: “Why is it that the sites of labor massacres across the country are little known and obscure? 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."
Andrew Lichtenstein / Facing Change
Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is the site of an Indian massacre in 1890. Today the area is mired in poverty.
"If something's become a museum or memorialized, it's often too late for me. But on the other hand, if I get there and there's no indication or no connection to history, I'm also stuck. Sometimes I can see it in something discarded on the ground. But sometimes I struggle to find anything symbolic. To me it's a fascinating process and something I feel that this project can really bring out or discover.”
It also prompts a larger question for Lichtenstein: "How do we define ourselves as a society? The past is always more about the present than the past. The events we choose to interpret and talk about now are more about who we are now than who we were before.
Lichtenstein uses what some might consider a historic means to capture his images. “I knew I wanted to work in film – the first thought was to take a large-format camera to historical events. But very few events are clearly historical as they're happening – 9/11 and Obama's election are obvious. I'm looking for something that's not so obvious in the present, but becomes clear after time goes by. Some things are just chatter that goes by.”
Timothy H. O'Sullivan / Library of Congress
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George G. Meade, Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, and numerous staff officers meet in Massaponax Church, Va., on May 21, 1864.
In this age of digital everything you may wonder why Lichtenstein chooses to photograph this project on film. “There are many things I love about digital photography,” he says, “But black and white images are not one of them. I want to feel that grain.” The image above, of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and numerous staff officers, was the first photograph that really got Lichtenstein thinking about this project. “I just love the blurry movement of some of the soldiers and the horses and mules,” he says. “It’s what made me want to work in large format, which, after some trials and many errors, I realized I was not organized enough to do,” he says. He settled on using a medium-format camera instead.
“History and photography are my two great loves,” says Lichtenstein. “I wanted to do something that really drew on those connections and made them front and center.” Lichtenstein plans to cover the entire nation. He says he’s about 60 percent finished with his project and plans to do more work in the West.
Editor's note: This is the introduction to a three-part series, History through the lens of today, that we're publishing in PhotoBlog this week.
Lichtenstein continues this work with the help of a grant from The Aftermath Project.