DECEMBER 18, 2017
WE DRIVE and walk every day over the places where somebody once wept or bled; the earth is a repository of invisible pain. Only in extremely rare instances are these places deemed historically important enough to be commemorated, and only in harmony with contemporary politics that can identify clear moral contours. Think of the secular holy ground of the World Trade Center site, the swan-white memorial over the wreck of the USS Arizona, the marble obelisks looming over any number of Revolutionary War battlefields.
But what of those places that are too ethically ambiguous or nationally embarrassing to remember? Does the land conspire to swallow them up, returning them to a place of forgetting? Why would we want to recall the place in a remote canyon where a vigilante gang led by some of the most prominent citizens of Tucson descended on a camp of Apache Indians and slaughtered most of them, selling the rest into slavery? Are these places holy or unholy?
These discomfiting questions receive brilliant and memorable treatment in the new collection Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory in which the Indiana University history professor Alex Lichtenstein and his brother, the Brooklyn photographer Andrew Lichtenstein, travel about the country to document the state of nature at the United States’s places of shame and violence. As the title implies, some are marked with a physical memorial, others are sites of periodic ceremonies, but most are completely bereft of anything tangible to set them apart from the rest of the national monoscape.
Don’t expect a depressing read, however. The black-and-white photos in this collection are generally dreamy and peaceful, shot mainly in ghostly tones, and suggesting the passage of time, not the menace of future violence. The jabs the book delivers are to the conscience, not the amygdala. When the sun is present, it is almost always for the purpose of casting shadows, like the multiple lines cast across the grass by a stand of trees at the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre near Eads, Colorado, where a gathering of peaceful Arapahoe Indians were murdered by a fanatical cavalry regiment. The reader cannot help but see the outlines of human figures, watching silently.
The danger with such photos — as anyone who loves landscape knows — is that the camera is often pointed at nothing, especially when the site offers no feature to engage the eye. Yet these, paradoxically, emerge as the most powerful photos in the collection. The Lichtensteins made the excellent choice to put images on the right, which is the first impression to the reader. Then comes the significance. A drainage culvert off Oklahoma Highway 74 looks completely unremarkable, even ugly, but it takes on heightened significance when the reader’s eye flicks to the left side of the open book to see that it was the place where nuclear plant worker and whistleblower Karen Silkwood crashed her car and died the night in 1974 when she was carrying a damning file of documents to a reporter for The New York Times. The file disappeared, along with all trace that anything had happened in this ditch.
So also with a concrete boat ramp leading into a river right outside Natchez, Mississippi. A dull scene that becomes sinister when the reader sees the caption to the left: “Slave Port.” This was where slaves, traded internally within the United States, were taken off Mississippi River steamboats on their way to a miserable life chopping cane in Louisiana.
Living human figures start showing up with regularity in the last third of the book, mostly in the context of mourners or visitors to a site during an anniversary commemoration. The most memorable include two Lakota women gazing at a federal officer wearing sunglasses and grim expression from across a flimsy wire fence outside the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The caption makes it clear that the agent is positioned to guard the visit of then–US Attorney General Eric Holder, who was there to lay a wreath. But the photo says: Stay away; this is still the white people’s place, Indians not wanted. The blood of the past still lies unquiet, making psychic spatters.
A similar haunting effect is present in another shot commemorating a Plains Indians site, this one a few riders on horseback making their way toward the place where, in 1862, 38 Sioux Indians were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in the country’s history. We see the horses, but the riders’ faces remain curiously out of focus and obscured. By contrast, the viewer stares straight into the expressionless faces of an interracial couple at the annual celebration of Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas — the recollection of June 19, 1865, when freed slaves were given grand promises of land and liberty, which still remain largely unfulfilled.
Grouped between the three series of extraordinary photos are interstitial essays, written by history professors from institutions like the University of Central Florida, Northwestern University, Indiana University, and the University of Washington Tacoma. Just as some college classes are better than others, some of the commentary lands with genuine impact and some in strings of empty phrases that fail to engage the reader.
A minor quibble: The weakest photos in the collection are framed as a crystallization of a lengthy social process and not a specific event. A field shrouded in kudzu in Martin County, Kentucky, stands for the 1960s War on Poverty, for example, and a man lurking outside an office building in Montgomery, Alabama, is caught waiting for a Confederate Heritage Rally. These shots and others lack the chilling immediacy of a specific place and event.
There are points both accidental and deliberate where the presentism of the past makes itself apparent. A pair of photos shot on the unmarked terrain of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion demonstrate the amnesia of Southampton County, Virginia. And the place where an African-American teenager and his mother were lynched on the shores of the Canadian River near Okemah, Oklahoma, is now bridged with a concrete slab. One of its pilings is tagged with graffiti: a pair of swastikas and the letters KKK. There is no way to know, notes Alex Lichtenstein, if the vandal even knew of the dark history of the spot. Which leads to the broader question posed to the American reader by this transcendent and haunting collection: what do we know of our own country?
Photos courtesy of West Virginia University Press.