by Robert Cohen

I’m no Mathew Brady.  Or perhaps I am.

The father of American Civil War photography came into the fray as primarily a portrait photographer but was best known as a documentarian, photographing the battlefields as they were, peppered with bodies of those who died.

Celebrating the 150 year anniversary of the battles this year, there is a natural spike in Civil War re-enactments.  I photographed one such encampment on Saturday, the portrayal of the Camp Jackson Affair, to the delight and dismay of our readers.

Re-enactors fascinate me.   Dressed in the navy blues and grays of the day, some spend thousands of dollars for historical accuracy.  They build detailed camps, displaying and using the tools of the day.

And on occasion they take a sip of a Diet Coke.

That’s where the visual problems begin.

Each re-enactor has their own tolerance for what they can live without for the weekend.  But what is their breaking point?  Is it a Blackberry, a bag of chips, a box of Marlboros?  Perhaps a case of Diet Coke?

April 30, 2011 - "This is my modern horse," explains Ken Ess of New Baden, Ill. as he used a bike to get back and forth from the artillery range to his campground Saturday at Jefferson Barracks County Park during a weekend Civil War reenactment of Camp Jackson. Ess is a member of the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery. Robert Cohen rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Quite frankly, those pictures are the most compelling to shoot and I do look for them.  The juxtaposition of old and new I think makes for some really interesting photographs.

But to some re-enactors, that reality is taboo for photography of people living their double lives.  Just yesterday I was forwarded a letter to the editor.  It was from a man who didn’t appreciate our photo choice in Sunday’s newspaper – a ‘soldier’ riding his Schwinn from camp to the artillery field.  Ken Ess of New Baden called it his “modern horse”.  I was pleased with the clash of history in the photo.

What might Mathew Brady have done?  Would he present the scene as he saw it as in his battlefield documentation or close his eyes and move on?

In our online gallery of the event, I tried to present a mix of pictures that gave respect to the purists and the occasional surprises that brought smiles to some readers.

In years of covering such gatherings, I’ve come up with a solution to the dilemma that works for me well.  When I make such photographs, I always make sure that the subjects understand what they were doing when the photo was taken.  If they object to the photo, then I respect their wishes and don’t use it.  If they voice no concern, neither do I.


Advertisements