The Long Road to Freedom

By  |  December 12, 2017
All photos © Jeanine Michna-Bales All photos © Jeanine Michna-Bales

Artist: Jeanine Michna-Bales

Project: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

Description: In Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad Jeanine Michna-Bales recreates the long voyage north toward freedom as it might have looked through the eyes of a single individual “oftentimes carrying little more than the knowledge that moss grows on the north side of trees.” These photographs of unpeopled rural landscapes, taken almost exclusively under the cover of descending or ebbing darkness, have about them a sense of both intimacy and mystery, conveying “how vast, strange, and forbidding these remote places must have felt to those making the journey” with an almost painful steadiness of vision: the camera trained always on the ground ahead, the sky, or the horizon line, the promise of a future the viewer can’t yet see.

The photos presented here are excerpted from a longer photographic essay, in which they’re often paired with quotes from songs, letters, or the memoirs of those who traveled or assisted others along the Underground Railroad’s rugged path. Beside a photograph of a wide, empty field north of the Cane River Plantations in Louisiana, a line from a spiritual reads: Oh, run Mary, run: / I know the other world is not like this. And alongside a cluster of small, distant clapboard buildings lit by the barely-rising sun there’s a quote from John Little, a fugitive slave: “’Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on that can tell you what slavery is—’tis he who has endured.” Through the project, we see the streams, hills, and vast green woods of the Underground Railroad not as a comfortable observer removed by hundreds of years of history, but as an implicated party asked to imagine having to risk “everything for the cause of freedom” and what we might have seen and felt on the long road to get there.


Eyes on the South is curated by Jeff Rich. The weekly series features selections of current work from Southern artists, or artists whose photography concerns the South. To submit your work to the series, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jeanine Michna-Bales’s images from her Underground Railroad photo essay have appeared in exhibitions around the United States and are currently part of a traveling exhibition through 2022. A publication of the series, Through Darkness to Light, was released in April (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017). Michna-Bales was named to the Critical Mass Top 50 in 2014 and most recently in 2017.