Roanoke professor, students team up with artist to produce unique Civil War photo book
This article was featured in the Roanoke Magazine, Issue 2, 2013. The full issue can be seen here.
Photographs and nature-inspired art brought Civil War history and the words of a revered American poet to life for Roanoke College students, a professor and a well-known artist.
"War Memoranda," a photo book that features cyanotype prints of Roanoke College students and combines excerpts from prose and poetry by writer and poet Walt Whitman, is a result of two years of hands-on work by artist Binh Danh and Dr. Robert Schultz, a Roanoke English professor.
The book, published in June, now is a part of the College's Archives in Fintel Library. It is produced in the style of Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner's large-scale photo books.
Nine Roanoke students posed for the book's pictures on former Civil War battlefield sites, in parks and on campus. Danh photographed them using his 19th century large format camera.
Some students read Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" while posing for the photographs. Danh asked others to close their eyes and reflect on a Whitman poem.
This cyanotype method of photography produces images in a blueprint color tone.
Schultz first learned of Danh's work six years ago when he saw it displayed during a group show of young photographers at what was then the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke. Danh's work was a collection of images of soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide that were developed in the flesh of leaves.
"It just knocked my socks off," said Schultz, who said he was impressed with Danh's ability to make images appear in leaves using a chlorophyll print method that the artist invented.
Schultz envisioned ways that Danh's leaf prints could be associated with Whitman's well-known book, "Leaves of Grass."
Schultz contacted Danh, who then lived in San Jose, Calif., and the two began corresponding long distance. Schultz gave Danh a collection of Whitman's writing. Many of their conversations turned to discussions of the ways in which photography was used during the Civil War.
Schultz proposed that Danh come to Roanoke College as an artist-in-residence during the fall 2011 semester. Danh's residency coincided with a course on Walt Whitman and the Civil War that Schultz planned to teach that semester.
Through his residency, Danh decided to create the book "War Memoranda," and it was his idea to involve Schultz's students. He visited Schultz's class and proposed to Roanoke students a unique way that they could be involved in the book's production - pose for portraits.
The students' introspective images matched much of Whitman's poetry, which acknowledges a future generation of readers of his work.
Beth Croshaw '14, one of the student volunteers, signed up for an afternoon time slot in October 2011 and met Danh for the photo session near the former Bittle Tree site on Roanoke's campus.
The photo required her to stand still and close her eyes.
"Danh told us to relax our face and close our eyes and think about Walt Whitman's poetry...like you were reflecting," said Croshaw, who is an English major from Smithfield, Va.
The result is a close-up image of Croshaw's face, appearing as a blue colored image in the book.
Other students, including Sam Smith '14, posed for photos at Mason's Creek in Salem, the site of the Hanging Rock Civil War battlefield. Smith leaned against a tree, while reading Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
Other landscape images in the book include the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington and Chatham Manor in Falmouth, Va.
Interspersed within the photo pages are excerpts from several Whitman works, including "Reconciliation," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd."
A poem by Schultz, called "Gettysburg," also is featured in the book. Schultz wrote the poem while Danh photographed the Copse of Trees, a focal point of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Schultz, a Whitman enthusiast, described his work with Danh as "one of the great experiences in my career."
Their collaboration does not stop with the book.
Schultz and Danh are making plans to showcase their work in an exhibition, titled "War Memoranda," at Roanoke's Taubman Museum of Art in February 2015. The exhibition, timed with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, will feature works in the way that people memorialize war.
It will include Civil War-era images from the Liljenquist Collection, available through the Library of Congress. Schultz has used the photos to make chlorophyll prints. Also, photographs from Danh's travels to Civil War sites and the 2011 portrait sessions with the Roanoke students will be displayed.
The exhibition will run from February through May in Roanoke before it travels to museums around the country.
Danh and Schultz spoke on Sept. 22 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., about their plans for this exhibit as it relates to a current exhibition at the national gallery, "Tell it with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial."
The upcoming exhibit is garnering additional attention from the Library of Congress, which plans to issue a book, "War Memoranda," based on the work of Danh and Schultz. It serves as the culmination to what Schultz said has been a "stimulating" project.
-Published Sept. 20, 2013