Unresolved History

by abigailsmithson

Andrew Lichtenstein’s work “Landscapes of American History”  documents how historically significant sites in the U.S. look today. Some remain untouched, with no sign that any event ever occurred there, while others show physical reminders of what took place. I sat down with Andrew (and his daughter!) to discuss the ongoing project.  He has traveled far to document how we, as Americans, treat the past.

Abigail Smithson: Documentary photography is based around the idea of marking a place in time. You have played with that idea a little bit, marking your place in time but also recording these historic places in their current state. What is your process of documenting history?

Andrew Lichtenstein: Photography, in this case is paralleling the study of history itself. History is never about the past. It’s always about how we are viewing the past in the present. What we select to be interested in, what we are interested in, what we choose and how we view it. It’s all about where we are at now. In many ways this project is taking that premise as the same thing. I am interested in the way historical sights look now. To me that makes it more interesting. I don’t want to go and just photograph and try to reframe something from the past. If there can be something in the picture that shows what it looks like now, great. So, for instance, the Indians marching through the town of Mankato a hundred and fifty years after the hanging with a big Verizon building in the background. For me that makes the picture work better than trying to make a picture that recreates our vision of what it looked like in 1862. It’s about how these historical sights look now.


© Andrew Lichtenstein “150th Anniversary of Mass Hanging, Mankato, MN”

Are they changed? Some of the most interesting places for me are where there is no recognition of the past whatsoever. But these are the hardest pictures to make. You want some connection to the historical event that happened there but the fact that there is none, I find fascinating. But how do you show that. I don’t know if I have figured that out.

I was following the trail of Crazy Horse and going to places that he visited in his life. Bear Butte, a mountain on the Northern edge of the Black Hills, was a site of refuge for Crazy Horse throughout his life and the place where he dedicated his life to saving the Black Hills from being stolen. It’s three miles from Sturgis which is crawling with the most tacky, horrible biker bars. The contrast between this site which is actually where the Sioux and Cheyenne receive their creation myth, and the culture that has steamed rolled over is amazing. To me, that’s what this project should be about.

American History (part 3)

© Andrew Lichtenstein “Crazy Horse”


© Andrew Lichtenstein “Wounded Knee Museum”

AS: How do you choose your subjects?

AL: It’s either a labor struggle, Native American massacres or racial conflict from slavery to civil rights. That would be a rough breakdown. It is easy enough to find events within those three categories. It’s basically endless. When does it stop? History is everywhere. Where are we sitting right now? Some café in Clinton Hill. It’s probably a burial ground for a tribe that we can’t even name.

AS: Are you patriotic?

AL: Well, yeah of course. I think patriotism is a horrible thing. You can see what it does to the world. But I am an American. I live here. This is for better or worse my home. Or nation. Patriotism is not something you should have to prove.

AS: Are you doing this work for the the photojournalist collective Facing Change or did you start it before you joined the group?

AL: This project happened before. I did some of this work for Facing Change but I was already working on this before Facing Change even existed. This project, actually, I didn’t just fall into it. I put a lot of thought into it. I wanted to document American history. And I wanted to use the process of photography to capture it. I was really inspired by a civil war photo of Grant leaning over the pew bench during the Virginia Campaign. It’s in the library of Congress. I was just really inspired by that. It is a large format image. I was inspired by the process of capturing this key historical moment.


From the archives of the Library of Congress (the original visual inspiration for Andrew’s work)

So my original idea was to bring a large format camera and capture key, historical moments. But that quickly fell apart. First of all, I am not organized enough to photograph with a large format camera. I am always double exposing. My mind just does not work like that. And second, it is hard to decide what is going to be a historical event. Things have to gel before we can actually recognize them. And then third, the clear and obvious historical events are just horrible photographic opportunities, when you are on a riser two hundred feet away from what is going on. That didn’t seem to be what I wanted to do with this project. So I was reading a lot of American history and I was actually teaching American history in the school system. I was seeing how students were relating to visual photographs in texts books. And I thought it would be amazing to go get a feel for these places now, to see what is there. And to use my experience as a photographer to document the atmosphere of these events that happened. So it was a process. I would say probably over a year of working this stuff out before I actually started photographing.

AS: Do you think that this work could be seen an as project with an educational purpose?

AL: I think that’s a role that it could play. But I don’t see it essentially like this. Most of my photography is a personal journey. The best thing about history is that it’s confusing and muddled and grey and there are characters filled with mixed motivations. That is the world that I am interested in. It is true that the history that Howard Zinn is examining is also the history that I am interested in. I am not interested in the traditional myths of America’s rise to greatness. (with quotation marks). At the same time I am not interested in trying to show that America has always been a violent, bloody and exploitative place. I think that’s just the flip side of the republican view of history. The U.S. , like any other country in the world has it’s demons. I just think that what’s makes us unique is that we as a nation try to export to the rest of the world this view that this does not exist. We are the beacon of light, the city on the hill. The great democracy that we are trying to bring to everyone else. It is the hypocrisy that is uniquely American. Not the fact that people have been brutalized, murdered, had their land stolen, etc.

Sand Creek

 © Andrew Lichtenstein “Sand Creek Massacre”

AS: In this series, you have a picture from The Lorraine Motel, an iconic location that I was able to recognize immediately. What was the process behind getting this shot?

AL: That is an amazing place. It is now the National Civil Rights Museum. I would recommend anybody who is ever in Memphis to absolutely go there. Within the project whenever there has been an event that I am really interested in researching and possibly photographing, generally speaking when there is a Museum or some form of official memorial or monument homage to that event, it’s over for me as a photographer. I can’t get a picture out of that, out of a Museum. I feel like I am swimming in well-treaded waters. I am much more interested in going somewhere where there is no marker.  Which is fascinating and maybe plays into the idea of educating the public. Like Cabin Pond where Nat Turner had his revolt. There is no marker there that this history of Nat Turner’s revolt, which is very important U.S. history, is completely ignored and forgotten. So that’s much richer grounds.

An American Landscape

© Andrew Lichtenstein “Cabin Pond”

But still, the Lorraine Motel, is truly an amazing place. The way they kept the building intentionally and even kept Martin Luther King’s last room. They put up a glass wall and left or recreated the beds sheets so it looks like he just slept in them. It has an ashtray filled with cigarettes and the original telephone. It’s an extremely moving place. And it’s really moving to sit there for a long time and watch Americans, both white and black, come and pay their respects to this man at the place of his death. And then, also the museum saved the place where the sniper shot him from. The original bathroom in the boarding house across the street. And you can go visit that, too. To me that’s pretty rich material. So there is a ceremony every year on Martin Luther King’s death. This picture is from April 4th.


© Andrew Lichtenstein ” The Lorraine Motel”

I like this picture because in visiting  Memphis I was more interested in spending time with the trash workers because that is why MLK was there. To support the sanitation workers in Memphis and their strike. They were working under horrible conditions. Some had been killed by the trash compactors. They didn’t get paid if it rained. They made less money than white people who had the same job. So that is why he was there. So I arranged with the current Memphis sanitation department to spend a day traveling with them as they picked up trash. And the guy who was driving the truck had so many years of service that he had actually been a striker in 1968 and he is still driving a truck picking up trash. These are the type of things that I just find in this project that are to me, gems. Just great experiences.

AS: What is your process of event and location choosing. How do you find your frame? Specifically, the picture that marks the event of Emmet Till’s death, which I find abstract and delicate yet packed with power.

I choose an event. And then I go look for photos around that event. Emmet Till’s murder in 1955 is an obvious event to cover. It galvanized the whole civil rights movement. Every important figure in the civil rights movement cites Emmet Till’s brutal murder as their political awakening. Certainly not that that hadn’t happened before or wouldn’t happen again. In many ways it’s just jumping on something that is happening all over and that has been happening for two hundred years. The brutal murder of African Americans. So that is the event. So I go to Money, Mississippi. Other photographers have been down this road, I am sure. The store where the confrontation took place would be an obvious place to start. I go there. Finding somewhere approximate to the where his body is found after it was dumped into the Tallahassee River. I go there. I would look if there was an environment or atmosphere in the town itself. In the end what I walked away with was the cotton picture. It is a process of discovery for me. I don’t go down there thinking “Oh I am going to photograph cotton”. I don’t know what I am going to find. In almost every case what I find is not the picture I went down there to make. If I have some preconceived idea of the picture that I need, let’s just say the rotting wood of the store, that’s not the picture I end up with.


© Andrew Lichtenstein “Emmet Till”

Sometimes I will find the picture in twenty minutes. Sometimes I won’t find anything at all. And it was all a waste of time. Of course, that’s photography. That’s something I think all photographers go through. Some events or ideas are much better than visually what’s there.

AS: Tell me about the pictures of the girls standing at the point where JFK was shot.

AL: That is the Grassy Knoll. Which is the spot that is the center of people’s feelings that the Warren Commission didn’t tell the truth and there was a second shooter and that if there was a second shooter they were there on the Grassy Knoll. Which is just a tiny little grassy hill above the site where JFK was shot in Dallas. To go there today, it is a big tourist spot. There are people from all over the world snapping each other’s pictures. On the Grassy Knoll. Or actually the exact spot where JFK got the bullet when his car was moving, there is a small white x in the road. That is a little bit harder to photograph because it is an active road. You drive over it so you have to be careful. The whole site is a big tourist spot. So to me again, the question is what is there now? Our own fascination with this unresolved history. In some ways that is a real watermark event in terms of American basic faith in their government and leadership. You can say pre-assassination and post-assassination. I certainly grew up in the cynicism of that event and being lied to about Vietnam. I was a kid during all of that so I feel like my generation is a generation of questioning. Not taking things at face value. I personally think that is a good thing, but how is that expressed? Almost like a tour bus scene of just saying “I was there”. That “I was there mentality”. Maybe that’s what this project is actually about. Maybe that’s all this is for me. This is my “I was there”. This is me getting off the tour bus and having my friend take my picture next to a spot. You could go to Dallas any day of the year and find that exact same scene. Maybe not one girl, maybe fifteen.


© Andrew Lichtenstein “JFK”

AS: Do you ever find this project upsetting to work on?

AL: Some of these events are upsetting events.  For example, The Sand Creek Massacre in 1862.  Now the federal government has actually bought that land and made it into a very small national park to commemorate the massacre. And you look up and there’s the sign right there at the railroad stop. It says Chivington. He is the guy who did it. The name of the colonel who organized and led the actual massacre. I don’t know if upset is the right word. In some cases I am more thrilled. That is kind of honey for me.  But we should be upset. That’s the whole fucking point. How we look at and view history is obviously a source of conflict. That’s good. That means people are paying attention.

I was just in Selma and besides the whole commemoration of the bridge and the Selma march, they have been trying to build a monument to Nathan Bedford Forest in the old confederate cemetery. The monument marker was  taken down and destroyed by people protesting it. And now there is a group of people, connected to  southern pride and southern heritage  who are rebuilding the monument and videotaping the area. So I was there while two people came to protest and people are videotaping the protest. This plays out today. These are symbols that are still important to us. I would so much rather have that conflict over history than what we usually have which is nobody caring. Or total ignorance.


© Andrew Lichtenstein “Selma”

AS: Is there a time lapse for when you believe a historical event becomes significant?

AL: I do think that history has to percolate before. Some things are obvious right at the moment. Obama becoming president, an African-American becoming president of the U.S. is obvious right at the moment. The invasion of Iraq. Obvious right at the moment. But things have to percolate for some time for us to really get a truer sense of their importance and their meaning as a whole. I am particularly interested in events from the 1960’s and early 70’s. I find that such a pivotal and experimental time in American history.  The cultural and political conflicts of the Nixon era are very alive and well today. That’s the red state/blue state division within American politics that has us paralyzed. Can I show that in a single frame? Probably not.

I remember my mother saying don’t eat seedless grapes. Because Cesar Chavez was boycotting the grape growers. To me that is just a totally kind of obscure but beautiful cultural reference. When I first started I was thinking of titling this work “don’t eat seedless grapes”. I don’t want the work to be politically aligned in that way.  But yeah of course, it’s internal. It’s personal. As in some way, all good projects are.

To see more of Andrew’s work, click here.

And to view even more, along with the work of several other photojournalists, please visit the Facing Change website.