Jeanine Michna-Bales is a Dallas-based fine art photographer and artist activist. She holds a BS degree in advertising from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Michna-Bales’s photographs explore the sometimes-fraught relationship between the past and the present. The body of work included in Southbound, collectively entitled Through Darkness to Light: Photographs along the Underground Railroad, was created over more than a decade. Michna-Bales conducted fastidious research and traveled from Louisiana to Canada to make the unseen seen in her photographs of documented and undocumented stops and routes along the Underground Railroad. A publication of the Through Darkness to Light series was released by Princeton Architectural Press in 2017. Michna-Bales’s work is found in the collections of Duke University, Durham; Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others.
The Underground Railroad, the famed covert network along which enslaved African Americans attempted to pass into the so-called free states in the United States or even reach Canada, has been the subject of numerous scholarly and fictional volumes. In the decades prior to the Civil War, an estimated 100,000 enslaved people chose to risk this journey, often with little more than the knowledge that moss grows on the north side of trees and instructions to follow the Drinking Gourd constellation in the night sky. Michna-Bales’s project attempts to connect viewers empathetically to the harrowing journey made by men, women, and children in search of that most basic human right: freedom. Given the inherently secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, its complete system of routes can never be known. In Through Darkness to Light, Michna-Bales documents the plantations, safe homes, swamps, and forests that those desperate for freedom could have encountered as they traversed paths encompassing roughly 1,400 miles.
Her decision to photograph in the dark along the southern route offers the viewer a glimpse of sites and spaces as if through the eyes of the freedom-seekers, who had to journey by night as daytime travel would have placed them in even greater danger. The darkness fosters a sense of anxiety; we are forced to peer into these dim landscapes in order to make sense of them, evoking a pale echo of the travelers’ angst as they scanned constantly for friend or foe.
Cypress Swamp (2014), with its moonlit grove of tangled trees, compels us to consider the full scope of what freedom-seekers would have encountered. Those who made the journey would cover as many miles as possible each night, with little to no control over the natural barriers they would be forced to cross. The two splashes of water on Michna-Bales’s camera lens serve to further ensconce the viewer in the environment, lending a sense of movement to the otherwise tranquil scene.
The Rose Mont Plantation home in Hidden in Plain Sight (2014) would be all but invisible if it weren’t for the beacon of liberating light spilling through the mansion’s Greek Revival columns. The composition collapses space and time so that the viewer is both us and the courageous people fleeing bondage; we are given a sense of concealment by Michna-Bales’s perspective, which has us looking up at the glowing home from the base of a hill. Whereas today Historic Rose Mont is host to a succession of weddings and other events, the house was once home to Josephus Conn Guild, a prominent Tennessee attorney who represented twenty-four enslaved people granted manumission in their master’s will but subsequently denied freedom by the executor of the estate. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld their right to be free.
The Underground Railroad comprised people of different races, genders, social levels, and religious identities, but all were united in a common cause. Participants risked their lives in the belief that no one should live in chains. Historians liken this social unification to the United States’ first civil rights movement. Michna-Bales’s photographs of the Underground Railroad bring this historic network to life as she offers up her camera lens in place of the eyes of those who set out in search of freedom.