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Photographer Stephen Marc visits the Fort Wayne Museum of Art

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-02-07


Last issue, we did a story on photographer Stephen Marcís Walking In the Footsteps exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Just hours after we went to press, I got a call from Marcís publicist, asking if I wanted to interview him. When you get a chance to talk to an award-winning photographer with over two decades of work to his credit, you say yes. Marc is currently a professor in the School of Art at Arizona State University. The exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art is part of a much larger project called Passages on the Underground Railroad , which blends documentary photography and digital imaging to create the spirit and feel of the Underground Railroad.

Fort Wayne Reader: Could you talk a little bit about the overall project, Passages on the Underground Railroad?
Stephen Marc: Itís an ongoing project. I started it in the summer of 2000, and Iíve now photographed one or more sites in 22 states and in Ontario, Canada. So, Iíve been in and out ofÖ Iím not sure of the number, but itís got to be about 80 or 90 sites where Iíve been able to really spend time and take photographs. While I was working on a project in Buffalo, New York, I went to some of the underground sites in that area, and some of the places were so incredible that I just felt I needed to do something that would do them justice. What I kept running into were real estate-looking photographs that were just the front of the place, and every eighth photograph would be of someone holding open a trap door. Iím a visual person, Iím curious, and I wanted to provide the viewer with a way of going in and out of those places, so thatís why I started doing those composites.

FWR: Most of the exhibit in Fort Wayne is made up of montagesÖ
SM: Yes. The montages deal with the Underground Railroad and slavery more metaphorically. So they may include one or more Underground Railroad sites, things like plantation sites. There are other artifacts in them, like shackles, or slave tags or letters and things like that. So the two bodies are meant to intermingle and inform each other. When I photograph an Underground Railroad site, everything is just about that place. But the montages mix and match, from settlements in Canada and plantations in Louisiana.

FWR: Why did you choose to create the montages, rather than go with a more straightforward documentary style?
SM: I was looking for something that would tell the whole story. The other thing is, an Underground Railroad site might have been just a place where people met up, got something to eat, took shelter. There made not even have been a hideaway. In some of those cases, if I just took you from one house to another, itís not quite the same as when I can then start to introduce the viewer to some of the things that were connected to the beginning and end of that journey. For instance, an Underground Railroad station may not have documents like letters, but Iíve been able to track down a few of those, and bring those into the montages. It allows me to bring other material thatís so important in terms of slavery, and even bring contemporary culture into the pieces. By the way, in some of the Underground Railroad sites, thereís not enough there to really build a piece from.

FWR: Whatís the biggest misconception people have about the Underground Railroad?
SM: Well, one is that people literally think about it as a train underground. They make the association with a subway. The Underground Railroad used to just be called the Underground Road. It was just an expression, and it changed when trains came along. I like to tell people itís sort of like when Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship (laughs). Itís a good way to test the age of your audience.

FWR: When you work, where does the historian stop and photographer begin, or vice versa?
SM: I donít claim to be a historian. Iíve had a couple historians say Ďyes, you are,í but thatís not my primary field of interest. Iím very grateful to the historians, because if it werenít for them, I wouldnít be able to do what I do. But Iím not doing the hardcore primary source research that they are. I really look at my role as being the photographer and interpreter, but in order for me to build a piece properly, I need to learn about what happened there.

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