John Brown’s body
A photographic project by Philippe Bazin
Translation : Margaret Dearing
1- A book:
After reading the book Clouds Splitter American writer Russel Banks, I went to the United States to follow his trail during the summer of 2007.
A white Puritan from Boston, John Brown (1800-1859) is a famous figure in 19th century American history for his struggle against slavery. For this struggle, he offered his life and lost two of his children. His last action that we will now impute as terrorist, consisted in attacking an ammunition depot of the American army at Harper’s Ferry (Virginia), to attempt in liberating slaves by distributing them arms. Arrested and refusing to plead madness to escape death, he will be hung by the neck in 1859.
His memory is celebrated by a popular song (cover version by Bob Dylan) and by a great painting presented at the Metropolitan Museum of New York : it represents him leaving for the gallows and kissing a small black child held out desperately by his mother : idealized image that all Americans are familiar with. His memory is also celebrated every year in May where he lived: he was a farmer at Lake Placid in northern New York State. At this date and place, millions of people meet for a day of remembrance. The farm itself has become a National American Monument.
John Brown lived there to help a colony of a hundred freed slaves to start farming in a very cold, harsh and hostile area at the time (the Adirondacks). Lake Placid is now an important tourist destination, for winter sports and for hiking in the summer.
Several events will celebrate in 2009 the 150th anniversary of Harper’s Ferry attack and of the death of John Brown.
2- Lake Placid, an American town.
During the summer of 2007, I therefore visited Lake Placid, John Brown’s farm, and the entire area. I consulted the city library’s documents about John Brown, I hiked the famous White Face Mountain that overlooks Lake Placid, I walked through the forest to reach Avalanche Lake, I visited the outstanding sport facilities of the town of the 1980 winter Olympics, I visited the downtown shops, of which none present objects referring to John Brown.
I met several people to try and localize the place (referred to as Tombuctu) where the black farmers lived. The last black family left the area in 1942. I located the itinerary of the « underground train » passing through the area to reach Canada put in place by John Brown.
3- A decorative system
The Adirondack style is famous for its famous wooden deckchairs, ideal for having a drink and looking at sunsets on the lakes and mountains of the Adirondack region. It is situated at the north of New York State, going as far as the Canadian frontier. It is a rather uninhabited area where rich Americans have constructed wooden houses, isolated on lakes’ shores and in forests. These houses are decorated in a quite surprising style evoking diverse origins: European colonialism, the deep south, and of course influences of the local forest culture itself marked by the Indians that lived there in the past.
4- Characters :
I tried to meet Russel Banks himself who owns a house 15 kilometers away from Lake Placid. However, he was absent and I left him a message on his answering machine. In fact, my intention was already to realize a photographic project about Lake Placid and to ask for his help.
I wrote to him when I returned to France, sending him information about previous photographic work and asking for an appointment in the United States or in France. I met him at the beginning of march 2008 in Paris and received warm support for such a project, as well as contacts in Lake Placid that would help me make important connections for the project (copies of e-mails enclosed).
In September 2008, at the occasion of an exhibition in Quebec, I returned to the Adirondacks to meet the people with whom Banks put me in contact with.
The discussions with Amy Goldine and Martha Swan were very positive and encouraging regarding my photographic project. Numerous other contacts were given to me, which would enable me to photograph the portraits for this project.
5- A title , « John Brown’s Body » :
Last September, I stopped in Elizabethtown in the middle of the Adirondacks. In front of the town hall, across the street from the tavern there is a cast-iron plaque commemorating the passage of John Brown’s body. It was exposed in the tavern an entire night before its last trip to his farm 40 km away. This trip through a third of the United States which found there its last stop, can remind us of, more recently, Bob Kennedy’s trip photographed by Paul Fusco and reveals an American way of remembering heroes.
On this plaque is written John Brown’s Body, which will be the title of my work and of the photography book I imagine.
6- A project :
Different aspects could therefore intertwine in this project:
- the memory of a historical figure (John Brown), whose action remains today a burning issue in the USA after 9/11 (the question of terrorism and of the death penalty),
- the intriguing absence of a part of the founding population (the blacks), evoking contemporary racial questions, which seem to be covered metaphorically every winter under the silence of a coat of white snow,
- the evocation of a major literary work exploring this history and these current events in their political, human and environmental complexity,
- a lifestyle that takes a peculiar vernacular form, evoking several origins, the puritans, the southerners, Africa and the Native Americans,
- and different portraits of people living in the region, who carry more or less consciously this contradictory history of origins. I would also like to photograph Russel Banks and Toni Morrison, my American “heroes”, in comparison to the idea of celebrity.
7- to conclude, what I would like :
I would like to realize a project in Lake Placid and its surroundings that takes into account all the aspects I have previously evoked to put together a documentary project (with a 4X5’ field camera) implementing metaphorically different significations of this history and place.
I would therefore like to go on location in May for the day of remembrance devoted to John Brown, and make photographic portraits of several particularly involved participants, as well as a video of the event.
I would afterwards like to stay a few weeks in the area to meet and photograph different people whose life has been influenced by this character I would like to photograph places and landscapes evoked by Russel Blanks in his book. I would also like to question photographically the absence of black families in this town that owes them its birth, as well as the different decorative signs inherent to the “Adirondack” style like the famous deck chairs, wooden furniture, rugs and draperies, the omnipresent representations of bears, etc… Finally, I would like to go on location during the wintertime to photograph this town under its abundant coat of white snow, and its Olympic skiing facilities.
It is for me an ambitious project that could synthesize different projects achieved during the last decade:
- in the port of Porto in 2001, Porto 2001,
- on the city of Lille in 2001, Vues imprenables (With unobstructed view guaranteed), portrait of a city seen from the offices of people who have important institutional responsibilities for the citizen’s lives,
- on the relation of image and text, Femmes Militantes des Balkans (Militant Women of the Balkans) 1999-2002,
- in the ex-Yugoslavian cities in 2002,
- with the Dunkerque museum in 2003 working from its painting by Hyacinthe Rigault showing a young black man, Intérieurs (Interiors) being a work made of video interviews and photographs of ethnical moulds dealing with the questions of racism and history,
- on the idea of a civil landscape inspired by Lorenzetti (his fresco of good and bad government) in projects such as Battle Landscapes (Dufftown) in Scotland or in the Yonne (France) in 2005 with Une partie de la campagne (A piece of the countryside),
- on the contemporary landscapes of modernity in Taiwan in 2005, in Cyprus in 2006 and in Albania in 2007,
- on the way which places are shaped by mentalities and conditions imposed by diverse institutions and rules of our time, in Les Antichambres (Antechambers), work in progress made in Poland during the summer of 2008 in collaboration the Christiane Vollaire.
The documentary form would enable me to intertwine these different aspects in a photographical “montage” that can be similar to documentary film. For example, the 9 photographs of landscapes in Scotland were taken on the sites of the great battles of the Middle Ages between Scotland and England. Since that time, multiple strata have been layered on these places, those of forgetting and violence, of reconciliation, of living with others, and of industrial modernity. The life of people there have been forged during centuries by these values, these places constitute their unconscious cultural background, made of history, literature, landscapes and leisure. The project proposed here will found itself on the same values and expand to a vaster photographic project.
Philippe Bazin, February 2009.
John Brown's Body