Through the Looking Glass
Photographer Michael Falco captures dreamy Civil War landscapes using a device even older than the battles themselves: the pinhole camera.
Q: What prompted the project?
A: Before I picked up my first pinhole camera, I was averaging about 10,000 images a week as part of my normal freelance work. The volume was so intense, I thought, why not go in a completely opposite direction and start with something that would really slow me down? The pinhole camera was the answer. I visited Antietam in 2009 and took some of my first good pinhole photographs on the battlefield, and I thought, “Oh, so this is what the camera can do.” I’d always been interested in the Civil War (the first two books I read as a child were biographies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant), so as the war’s 150th anniversary approached, I thought it would be really interesting to see what the pinhole camera could do.
I went to Manassas in 2011, met some reenactors, and when I looked at the images, I thought, “Wow, maybe there’s something more here.” When I first started working with the camera, I tended to avoid portraits, because I didn’t like the way the camera rendered people, but the fact that the reenactors wore uniforms completely changed the feeling of the images—it unified the figures in a way that they became anonymous, as if they represented every soldier. Images of the battlefields tend to be quiet and somber landscapes, but the reenactments really bring these places back to life.
Q: How do pinhole cameras work?
A: The pinhole camera is the most rudimentary camera you can take a picture with; there are no moving parts. There’s a pinhole to let the light in and film in the back of the camera to capture the light, and the shutter is basically a flap that covers the hole. I take a reading with my light meter, which tells me [how long to leave the shutter open]—usually about one to six seconds, depending on the subject and whether it’s cloudy or sunny out.
What the pinhole camera is able to do better than any other camera is capture the feeling of a place. People often attach their own memories and experiences to the images. The fact that the images are missing detail encourages the viewer to look more deeply, so you wind up staring at the pictures longer than you typically would.
Q: What sort of response have you gotten from the reenactors?
A: When I’m out with the pinhole camera in New York City, people stop me on the sidewalk and they’ll ask, “What is that?” but on the battlefields, it’s a completely different experience. I’ll walk by a reenactor and he’ll say, “Cool, a pinhole camera.” Of course, they live in this whole world thrown back in time, so it doesn’t surprise me they would know what a pinhole camera is. They also appreciate the idea of trying to re-create something [from an earlier age].
Q: And you’ve actually become a reenactor as well?
A: After attending my first reenactment as a spectator, I quickly realized that I couldn’t get the images I wanted from behind a rope—I’d have to be on the battlefield, which meant I’d have to become a reenactor myself. So I decided to take on the guise of a 19th-century photographer. People are constantly calling me Mathew Brady, which was never my intention, but in a way, I’m trying to do what Brady couldn’t do, and that is to be on the battlefield during these events.
I’ve always been fascinated with the perspective of the soldiers and what they saw when they were moving through the country. Before the Civil War, people hardly ever left their own towns, but here, young men were being marched 500 miles from where they lived. I was interested in the idea that the country that these young men saw in the 1860s still exists in some ways, and you can still see it, if you look closely. For me, it’s like stepping back in time. And if you know the stories behind the battles, the experience is much richer—a hill is a hill, and a fence line is a fence line, but when you know this is the site where a general stopped his troops during a pivotal battle, all of a sudden the experience becomes even more profound.
Michael Falco will continue tracing the war’s history this year, visiting Chancellorsville in May, Gettysburg in July, and Chickamauga & Chattanooga in September. Follow his journey
About the author
Scott Kirkwood Former editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine