Battle of New Orleans Bicentennial

By Roger (15 January 2015)

I'm back from my first road trip of 2015. I went down to the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of New Orleans. This battle was, actually, a series of skirmishes, culminating in an all-out British assault on 8 January 1814.

The War of 1812 had not been going well for our new nation – the Capitol had been torched, and our victories, though strategically significant, had been few. The attacking British forces were over-confident; had some bad luck; and were slaughtered by a small group of regular soldiers, in conjunction with freed black men, Choctaw warriors, some pirates, and some locals looking for adventure.

The final battle was over in a few hours with more than 2,000 British casualties to about 70 Americans. The American commanding general, Andrew Jackson, rode his fame from this battle into the White House, becoming our seventh President in 1829.

I'll try to hold back on the history lessons, but that was really what this trip was all about.

Musket fire at Chalmette Battlefield

Musket fire at Chalmette Battlefield

The organizers did a great job with the re-creation of the battlefield (you don't do re-enactments on the real battlefield) and lots of living history displays at the actual Chalmette battlefield. There were shuttle buses to take you between the two sites, about a mile and a half away from each other. The re-enactors were as varied as the forces that participated in the real battle. It was a people photographer's dream.

I met dozens of people at the Chalmette displays. Barbara was talking about the history of the tignon, a scarf-like head covering, worn by women of color. It was required by a law passed in 1786, under Governor Esteban Miro, as a mark of inferiority. It had the opposite effect, as the women used the finest materials available and decorated them with jewels and ribbons. Barbara practically demanded that I take her portrait. I was happy to oblige.

Barbara's tignon

Barbara's tignon

Several members of the Choctaw Nation came in from Oklahoma and set up a display and performed dances. The Choctaws were enemies of the pro-British Creek, and many fought on the American side.

One of the Choctaw participants

One of the Choctaw participants

The American soldiers were a motley mix of regulars and militia. The favorites for the re-enactors tended to be the frontiersmen. They told me portraying these men allowed them to get a little more inventive with their “uniforms.”

USS Carolina crew

USS Carolina crew

Tennessee Long-Rifle

Tennessee Long-Rifle

French Trader

French Trader

And, of course, there were the folks portraying the British troops. They came from England, Scotland, and Canada. (It always amazes me how far some of these re-enactors travel for their hobby.) Several had ancestors who fought in the battle. They were in the uniforms of the units they portrayed, so there were many variations in their army, too.

Enemy battle flags

Enemy battle flags

Part of the British formation

Part of the British formation

British sergeant at the Chalmette plantation house

British sergeant at the Chalmette plantation house

All in all, there were about 700 re-enactors, but it seemed like there were many more. As you walked around both sites, there was always something going on. As I said at the beginning, the organizers put on a good show, with something for everyone. At one camp, there were women preparing food in the camps, in a huge kettle. There were talking about the problems of preparing enough food for the soldiers while they were wrestling with the kettle, fire, and big, wooden spoon.

Cooking in the camp

Cooking in the camp

When the battle began, the smoke from the muskets and cannons quickly obscured the battlefield. The British formations kept getting closer to the American hastily-constructed breastworks, but they were decimated before they could create any major breech.

The British advance

The British advance

I planned this trip last year when I saw that the bicentennial was approaching and almost cancelled it a few times. I wasn't sure it would be worth the time. You may find yourself thinking this way, too, from time to time. Don't give in to that feeling; get out there and use your camera. You started down this photography road because you wanted to make some interesting pictures. You can't do that when you're sitting on the couch. It's more fun to go explore.

I always need a cannon shot with flames

I always need a cannon shot with flames

Change Your Approach

By Roger (23 October 2014)

When you shoot the same subject frequently, you can find many of your photos beginning to revert to a norm. Things begin to look too similar. Your photographs may not lose their quality, they just don't excite you as much. If you find this happening to you, it's time to change your approach to the subject – explore different facets of the subject; do something, anything, you haven't done recently. You don't want your photography to become boring to you. That is a sure sign it may be boring to your viewer.

One of my long-time projects, for the last couple of years, has been photographing the Civil War sesquicentennial re-enactments. The project continues until April 2015, when I will join the re-enactors at Appomattox, Va., where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, 150 years ago. As a guy who loves history and genealogy, this photo project has been lots of fun for me. However, over the last 24 months, I've shot many battlefield re-enactments, and I was beginning to become less interested in the results. I was making the photographs for my project, not for my enjoyment.

I realized I needed to do something differently. So, at this weekend's event at Cedar Creek Battlefield, near Middletown, Va., I concentrated on photographs other than the actual battle re-enactments. Not only did I get a better variety of photos, my fun meter slammed back into the green zone.

Formation on the ridgeline, Cedar Creek, Middletown, VA

Formation on the ridgeline, Cedar Creek, Middletown, VA

I arrived at the rolling hills of Middletown early, while the re-enactors were practicing their close order drill, prior to the arrival of regular visitors. With lots of clouds keeping down the light, I shot these guys up on a ridge from a much lower angle and got this nice silhouette. It isn't an extraordinary shot, but I got what I saw in my head, and that is always a kick.

Once I had my plan for the day, there were photographs everywhere I turned.

Young Re-enactor

Young Re-enactor

For many, these events are a family affair, and some of the re-enactors start a very young age. I had a chance to shoot several shots of this cute, little girl, waiting with her mother and friends. I sat on the ground to keep at her eye level and made this shot as she noticed me. She turned shy and hid behind her mother.

This was a big gathering of almost 7,000 re-enactors. Cedar Creek was an important battle, pitting Union General Philip Sheridan against Confederate General Jubal Early. The Confederates were eventually defeated, and the Union controlled the Shenandoah Valley until the end of the war.

On Saturday, before the battles, the Union boys held a mass formation and a pass in review. It was an impressive site. It took almost an hour for all of them to parade by. The reviewing general looked more like General Sherman (not possible because he was in Georgia, threatening Atlanta), but he cut quite a figure, just the same.

The General for the Review

The General for the Review

There were too many soldiers to fit in my lens, but I made many photos of parts of the formation and during the pass in review. For an old Army guy, they were just too good to pass up.

Pass in Review, Cedar Creek

Pass in Review, Cedar Creek

After the Union pass in review, it was time to head over to the Confederate camps to see what I could find there. The folks there were busy preparing for the upcoming battle. Women in the camps were mending uniforms; preparing for wounded that were soon to arrive; and discussing bits of the day's news.

In the Confederate camp

In the Confederate camp

The re-enactors live in period-correct tents and cook their meals over fires during the event. When they aren't engaged in the battles, they will happily give living history demonstrations of camp life. We discussed the facts and personalities of this battle. As always, I had no problems getting permission to make photos of them.

Confederate Infantryman

Confederate Infantryman

The camp included a photographer who was taking authentic tin-types and ferro-types, with a replica camera. He had a long line, waiting for the opportunity to pose. He developed the photos in the tent with the same type of chemicals Matthew Brady used 150 years ago. I watched several of the photo sessions.

After Mark's blog, last week, I had to make at least one toned photo to look like it was taken 150 years ago. I'm quite happy to create the effect in Lightroom, but it was impressive to watch the re-enactment photographer create the real thing.

Tin-types and Ferro-types while you wait

Tin-types and Ferro-types while you wait

North Carolina Confederate

North Carolina Confederate

The day went entirely too quickly. I wish I could have made it there for Sunday when the Confederates were going to conduct their parade. The different approach brought back my enthusiasm to see this project through to the end in April. I began this project with the idea I would photograph the battles, but it needed a more comprehensive approach. The Civil War impacted Americans far beyond the battlefields, and the re-enactors do a great job of showing us how life was lived in those times.

And I found some humor on the edges of the battlefield. Keep the fun in your photography.

We didn't have these kinds of rations when I was in the Army.

We didn't have these kinds of rations when I was in the Army.

Project Update

By Roger (22 Nov 2013)

This week's 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address offered me another opportunity to add photos to my personal project about the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. I've been chugging through a couple of other commemorations since I last wrote about this project, but it's always nice to get up to Gettysburg.

We got there early enough to park directly across from the Soldier's National Cemetery. The cloud cover meant we weren't going to make too many shots with lots of sky, but the even lighting was nice for people. We made a short circuit around the central burial fields before finding a good location near the front of the speakers' dais. Maybe because of my genealogy background, I am not bothered when walking around cemeteries. I enjoy reading the tombstones and thinking about the lives and times of those buried there. Since this cemetery was created to bury the thousands killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, the majority there lived short lives in very troubled times. But there are more recent internees, too.

Cemeteries may not be the first thing that comes to your mind as photo subjects, but I'm often in them for my history projects.

Cemeteries may not be the first thing that comes to your mind as photo subjects, but I'm often in them for my history projects.

By the time the ceremonies began, there were more than 4,000 people there. I counted four Lincolns, a Frederick Douglass, LTG Grant (neither Douglass nor Grant were at the real event in 1863), 75-100 anonymous Union soldiers, and countless townspeople in period dress. They were surrounded by media folks with TV cameras and microphones, driving a buzz around the country that was more intense than the original event.

Michael E. Crutcher Sr. portraying Frederick Douglass at the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

Michael E. Crutcher Sr. portraying Frederick Douglass at the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

The crowds got in my way for the types of photos I like to take at these events. I usually like to keep all signs of the modern world out of sight, but that wasn't always possible. I managed to work around some of it through cropping, lens blur, and when necessary, Photoshop. Some things, like President Lincoln on the podium with a microphone, I just had to accept.

James Getty portraying Abraham Lincoln at the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

James Getty portraying Abraham Lincoln at the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

The re-enactors are great resources you can use to discover additional opportunities. I always talk to these folks and try to trade business cards. As I've said before, the people who take these re-enactments seriously have dedicated lots of time and effort to make their portrayals as real as possible. They do not object to you photographing them. Just be decent about it and send them a file they can use on their websites or for their own purposes.

A Union cavalry trooper at the Soldier's National Cemetery, Gettysburg.

A Union cavalry trooper at the Soldier's National Cemetery, Gettysburg.

Quick tip – Before I begin to make photographs, I synchronize my watch with the camera clock. Then, when I make their photo and give them a card, I write the time I took the photo on my card. They can send me an email with the time, and I know right where to find them. I make so many photos of so many people at these events, it can be hard to remember who is who. This method is the easiest way to keep everyone in synch.

While we were at the ceremonies, we met some members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company B. They were waiting for their part of the activities, so I took a couple of photos. They are located nearby, so I hope to do more with them at some other event. They have a website with the history of the unit and events in which they'll be participating (link).

A soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company B, Gettysburg.

A soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company B, Gettysburg.

Obviously, I thought the trip was great and added a few new photos to my project. I dragged a new photographer with me from work because it's always more fun when you have someone to enjoy the event with. More trips are on the horizon, right up to April 2015, at Appomattox, Va. Leave a comment or send me an email if you'd like to join me for some of them.

Auschwitz

By Roger  (24 Oct 2013)

While we were in Poland, we took a side trip to the Nazi concentration camp, at Auschwitz.  The day was gray, with an annoying drizzle – appropriate weather for a visit to someplace this dismal. Sometimes, when you're traveling near a famous – or in this case, infamous – location, you just have to go make some photographs. Auschwitz was only 37 kilometers from Krakow, where I spent the majority of my time in Poland.

I had visited other concentration camps while I was living in Bavaria; Dachau was only 45 minutes from our house.  The German approach to these historic sites is, understandably, a little different.  They preserve the site and enough of the buildings to ensure a memorial, but the remaining complex is just a small representation of the original.

Poland, however, has preserved much of the Auschwitz complex, which was actually about 45 different compounds.  The Nazis used these facilities to exterminate more than 1.2 million prisoners (about 90% Jews).  Obviously, this is not a happy place to visit, and, although I knew the history, being on the site was still overwhelmingly oppressive.  I knew I would process the photos in black and white; color just didn't seem appropriate.

The main gate into Auschwitz. 

The main gate into Auschwitz. 

Usually, the image most have a Auschwitz is the main complex, Auschwitz I, where the famous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will make you free) is above the main entrance gate.  Prisoners arriving here were registered and tattooed.  This was where doctors Carl Clauberg and Josef Mengele did their heinous experiments.  This is the site that draws most of the visitors.  The tour through the barracks and administrative buildings includes photographs of prisoners and their horrible living conditions; the wall where executions were carried out for any rule infraction; and rooms filled with shoes, suitcases, and other personal effects taken from the prisoners. 

An entire room filled with shoes from the victims. 

An entire room filled with shoes from the victims. 

Prisoners were ordered to leave their suitcases as soon as they got off the trains. 

Prisoners were ordered to leave their suitcases as soon as they got off the trains. 

Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, however, was the location of the majority of the killings.  The railroad cars, packed with sick and terrified prisoners, would arrive inside the compound.  The Nazi guards would divide the prisoners into two groups: to the right, and you were registered and became slave labor until you died; to the left, and you were escorted to the gas chambers.  By June 1943, the Nazis were operating four crematoria to burn the victims' remains. 

Prisoners were herded into cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz; many did not survive this journey. 

Prisoners were herded into cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz; many did not survive this journey. 

Bodies were cremated to hide the evidence of the exterminations. 

Bodies were cremated to hide the evidence of the exterminations. 

I won't go through the entire history of Auschwitz because it is horrendous, and this is a photography blog.  The visit was a very moving experience, and I will visit it again when I'm near Krakow. If you want to learn more about this despicable chapter in mankind's history, there is a really comprehensive article about Auschwitz on Wikipedia (link). If you're one of those people who feels that studying history is uninteresting, I highly recommend you visit historic sites.  It's hard to have ambiguous feelings about historic facts when you are on the scene for a more personal visit.

Empty canisters of Zyklon, the poison used in the gas chambers.

Empty canisters of Zyklon, the poison used in the gas chambers.

"No Man's Land."  Areas near the walls were guarded by Nazi soldiers who shot any prisoners crossing the line.  

"No Man's Land."  Areas near the walls were guarded by Nazi soldiers who shot any prisoners crossing the line.