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The Civil War 150 Pinhole Project

Civil War reenactment near Gettysburg, PA. 2012

Civil War reenactment near Gettysburg, PA. 2012

Herman Melville, in his “Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War”, turned to poetry to help convey the immensity and scope of the American Civil War.  Melville observed that prose or the very lexicon of our language could not adequately convey the cataclysm that was the Civil War; only art was able to fathom it. This sentiment is echoed in period journals and memoirs, when soldiers have difficulty finding the words to describe what they experienced. The battlefield is repeatedly referred to as “dreamlike.”

Henry House at the Manassas Battlefield, VA. 2012

Henry House on the Battlefield at Manassas, VA. 2012

Today, through preservation, many battlefields of the Civil War remain 19th century landscapes; they look much as they did 150 years ago, with some still retaining the scars of fierce fighting. In this sense, walking the fields today is like stepping back in time.  The history of the American Civil War is woven into our country’s landscape, and made present in our deep familial and cultural connection to the land. The popularity of Civil War reenacting is a testament to the idea that the past is present; many Civil War enthusiasts participate in the military units of their great, great grand fathers, reenacting the same battles their forbearers fought nearly 150 years ago.  The past is very much present for these Americans.

Reenactors of the 1st Virginia Regiment in camp at the reenactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, Va 2013.

Reenactors of the 1st Virginia Regiment in camp at the reenactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, Va 2013.

The Civil War 150 Pinhole Project seeks to visualize the American Civil War from the soldiers’ point of view and illustrate the haunting beauty of the war’s many battlefields.

Following the war’s timeline, the project will cover all major encounters from a soldier’s perspective in battle, in camp, and on the march.  The 19th century faithfully reveals itself in this series, which will eventually conclude at Appomattox, Virginia April 2015, the 150th anniversary of the end of the War.  The aim of this project is to illuminate this monumental period in American history through the rudimentary eye of a pinhole camera.

The pinhole camera is the most rudimentary camera one can photograph with;  it has no lens, no shutter and no viewfinder. The light is focused through a tiny pinhole aperture, which is then captured with the image directly onto sheet film.  Exposure times can vary greatly and be anywhere from a few seconds to minutes and even hours depending on the light source.  During these long exposures the clouds move, rivers flow, the earth rotates….creating a dreamy, soft-focus world where the distractions of detail are softened and the very essence of the subject comes through.

The Shenandoah Valley from Signal Knob, Front Royal, VA. 2012

The Shenandoah Valley from Signal Knob, Front Royal, VA. 2012

The pinhole camera therefore is able to capture a stillness and quiet beauty; one which continues to haunt the historic battlefields of the Civil War to this day.  Also, embedding with the “troops”, becoming a reenactor myself, has given me the opportunity see the “battles” from the soldiers perspective.  Echoing the sentiments found in period letters and journals about the experience of combat, the pinhole camera captures the reenactments in an authentically “dreamlike way;” long, soft exposures that highlight the feeling of battle. The blurred and wistful pinhole images are able to capture the universality of anonymity; re-enactors emerge not merely as impersonators, but as “every soldier.”

Re-enactors in Michie, TN. 2012

Re-enactors in Michie, TN. 2012

It is still possible, 150 years later, to stand on the battlefields and feel for oneself the power and trepidation of the great War Between the States…the past is present. The Civil War 150 Pinhole Project takes inspiration from the sentiment of author Robert Penn Warren who wrote, “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.”

Tennessee River from the Indian Mounds, Shiloh Military Park, Shiloh, TN. 2012

Tennessee River from the Indian Mounds, Shiloh Military Park, Shiloh, TN. 2012

The past is present when gazing upon Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains or marveling at the historic confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. It is present wandering the forests of Virginia and discovering miles of trenches built by soldiers of the 19th century, or picking up a rusted shell fragment laying in plain site on the Battlefield at Shiloh…in 2012.  The past is made present when coming upon “unknown confederate” grave stones on an old trail along the Natchez Trace, or meandering along the banks of our country’s mighty rivers; America’s 19th century highways.

The Civil War has been described as this country’s truly epic struggle, America’s Iliad.  Nearly 150 years on echoes of this time can still be felt and seen…the past is present.  From the Mississippi Delta to the rolling fields of Pennsylvania, the Civil War landscape speaks to us in a language the pinhole camera seems somehow innately able to transmit.

The fighting boils up at the Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, PA 2013.

The fighting boils up at the Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, PA 2013.


See the Stories and Photos of the Battles: 1861-1862

See the Stories and Photos of the Battles: 1863

See a Slide Show of the Pinhole Photographs: Slide Show

Learn about the Pinhole Camera:  Pinhole Cameras

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. marsha polier #

    Your Civil War project is fascinating and has captured the interest of me and my octogenarian photographer/historian colleague Richmonder Willie Anne Wright…a nationally known pinhole artist who, for over 40 years, has produced stunning black & white/sepia and Cibachrome pinhole portfolios. Most widely exhibited is her Civil War Redux series – re-enactment photos produced during a 12-year period beginning in 1987 – long before any mention of the 150th Anniversary of the War. Her prints are in many private and corporate collections including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts here in Richmond – her hometown.. When I saw your images recently in the NYT Lincoln article by Nancy Koehn, I was startled by the similarity of your images to those of Willie Anne Wright. You both have a keen and gentle eye – and a fondness for the beauty of history.
    Best wishes,
    Marsha Polier

    January 29, 2013
  2. haha have just been over to your website and realised I’m chatting away to a proper photographer of import as if you were just one of my bog standard hobbytog bloggers, cringe :) sorry, anyway just thought I’d best let you know I’m not a stalker, just English :D

    March 14, 2013
    • nothing wrong with being English.

      March 14, 2013
      • No, I’m truly blessed with the best bits of Englishness. :) Your website photography is gorgeous, I love the diversity and social commentary and the portrait work is so modern but beautifully timeless. I especially was taken with the shipyard series, living here in the North East, where the shipbuilding days are in men’s blood, but the work sadly diminished to nothing years ago, it has some pathos to me. I work with these discarded men. oops gone on a bit. Honest! I’m outta here!! :)

        March 14, 2013
      • thanks for stopping by the site and for your thoughtful comments, thanks so much

        Mike Falco

        March 14, 2013
  3. Hi, Michael,

    I assume you’re the same Michael Falco I met in Seattle. I always thought you were a superb photographer–and your new work is mind-blowingly great! I hope that you and Kimberly are doing well.

    Best regards,

    Dan Gunter

    July 14, 2013

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  1. Civil War Reenactments Photographed with a Large Format Pinhole Camera

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