Over the past few months a new manner of photographic art form has come to my attention. It involves taking old photographs and merging them with new ones. I have loved this sort of game for ages, but digital photography now brings it to our fingertips. Who cannot love the work of William Frassanito who made it his métier to locate the sites and angles of noted Civil War photographs and set “then and now” images side by side?
No one could not claim that Frassanito invented the approach, but few before him had used it to such great effect and historical value. His careful work charted out how photographic teams lugged corpses around battlefields from place to place to get just the right shot. That may not have changed the way military historians understood a fight, but it certainly added a deeply valuable and unique level of humanity to the aftermath of the battles. No small feat. I was one of the almost innumerable kids who grew staring in fascination and horror at the often quite beautiful images of the war’s dead. Frassanito deepened and reanimated these images for me. For example, it was moving to learn that that gaunt, prone, but yet so life-like blood-soaked Confederate boy (as he indeed was) whose life ended with a checked cloth near his hand as he hid in a small pile of fence rails near Spotsylvania Courthouse was also the dead man second from the left in another photo from the same sequence. Frassanito’s work showed us that many of these men in these seemingly separate images were in fact comrades, and in all probability knew each other by name given how close to one another they died. Likewise, Frassanito’s Gettysburg work showed that the much-beloved and ballyhooed photograph of the Confederate prisoners by the fence rails shows men who in fact were not defiant heroes nor exemplars of the “elan” that Shelby Foote effused about, but were instead deserters who hid out in barns near Carlisle and thus missed the battle.
Three “Johnnie Reb” Prisoners, captured at Gettysburg, 1863 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
This Frassanito gleaned from photographer’s notes, landscape triangulation, and army records. Wonderful work.
James Deetz too used photographic “then and now” in Flowerdew Hundred when he matched up views of the James River. I am not sure that he really did much more than offer a contrast, but he did use the process in aid of identifying sites—perhaps the approach’s most valuable use. I played at this game early on in the Ferry Farm work, although not with an eye toward finding sites.
But these new Photoshop matchups (although it would be Gimp in my case) are something very different. More art than research. They have enormous capacity to invoke if nothing else–but that capacity is remarkable. The first I saw of these were mashups from Russian cities during The Great Patriotic War. They wonderfully set school children against T-34 tanks and blown out buildings and thus created deeply haunting beautiful images.
I took my first stab at this in Bristol in the UK—a city that was extensively bombed by the Germans during WWII. I used an image of the lovely Park St. and did my best matching up.
What I had not noticed at first was the contrast of the devastated buildings on the right of the image, and the fashionable cartoon violence referenced in the movie poster on the left. On Park St., one generation knew these horror all to well, whereas a later generation has turned horror into a fun afternoon. I had created art and did not even know it.
Now that I am back in Fredericksburg, I am in a setting filled with great historical images. Years of time here have let me know most of the locations for many of the best shots. So I have set in to do a few of these over the next few weeks.
I do have a question though. In a city struggling with issues of preservation I find myself wondering if this sort of imaging highlights that which is lost, or does it create the impression that more has survived? Of course that depends on the individual image to a large degree. But, I find myself wondering if this helps or hurts the larger cause of preserving past views.
, William Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865 (New York: Thomas Publishing, 1996).
 William Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (New York: Thomas Publishing, 1996).
 James Deetz, Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of Virginia Plantation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996).