Soldiers—Civil War-era soldiers, to be precise—are officially camped out in Warehouse Row.
The 18-piece photography exhibit by Gregg Segal, called State of the Union and currently on display on the first floor of the downtown destination shopping center, features Civil War re-enactors posed in former battlefield locations, many of which now bear the evidence of America’s commercial modernization.
Think a hard-nosed soldier with a thousand-mile stare hunkered in a snowbank with his bayonet in hand—expect instead of being centered in a snowy landscape, the soldier is overshadowed by the Staples looming in the background.
“I like the idea of layering the past on top of the present,” Segal said. “In a sense, these soldiers are wandering through a landscape that is familiar and then isn’t [familiar]. They are all that remains of the past. They are like ghosts in that way—forbearers reminding us that something important happened, that blood was spilled there.”
Segal is a national photographer based in California whose recent work includes a photo shoot with Disney CEO Bob Iger for Fortune magazine and another shoot with an exercising Congressman Paul Ryan before the election.
The life of a re-enactor
The concept for State of the Union developed from the artist’s longtime observation that most of America looks the same, regardless of where he was meeting, with his reading of Tony Horwitz’s nonfiction book “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.”
For the book, Horwitz deeply immersed himself in the culture of Civil War re-enactors, getting so close that he chronicles their practice of spooning for warmth during the colder nights of enactments.
While habits like that play into the stereotype of the slightly obsessed, what Horwitz also noted and what intrigued Segal was the way in which the re-enactors styled themselves as living historians who had a responsibility to ensure the preservation of Civil War battlefields.
The Civil War Trust cites a study conducted by the U.S. Congress, which estimates that 20 percent of the land involved in Civil War battles has been overrun with roads and residential or commercial development and continues to lose the “hallowed ground” at a rate of one acre per hour. The nonprofit organization's mission to preserve property has saved 34,039 acres to date since its founding in 1987.
Segal connected with one of the re-enactors featured prominently in Horwitz’s book, Robert Lee Hodge. After winning the filmmaker-artist-public speaker-writer-researcher’s trust by approaching the project from the perspective of raising awareness about the waning battlefield acreage, Segal hired Hodge as a producer and organizer of sorts.
The photographer traveled with his guide to the living world of the Civil War for five trips in 2010. They visited sites mostly in the South, such as Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and the area around Gettysburg, Pa.
Segal explained that Hodges, who posed for a handful of the exhibit’s photographs, helped identify the battlefield locations and connect with fellow re-enactors to populate the frames. The crew would often spend a full day scouting out the perfect spot, one that captured the ironic clash of consumerism on the former grounds of historic moments in America’s history.
The authenticity of the clothing Hodge and his contemporaries wore often proved fruitful in recreating historically accurate conditions: The wool uniforms were sweltering in the summer, and the holes in their boots and socks made for freezing extremities in the winter.
“One of the interesting parts of meeting them was that you think they are going to be a bunch of rebel rednecks, but that’s not the case,” Segal said. “Many are well-read and not right wing [Conservatives]. In fact, some are left-leaning.”
Of the exhibit’s 18 images, one is of Steve Evans sitting under a Civil War statue in the Orchard Knob neighborhood of Chattanooga. Finding the particular photo shoot location for the Atlanta-based woodworker was a whole day haul and involved being run off from private property more than once, but eventually, in the dusk, Segal discovered an almost-forgotten curb.
Other images include soldiers walking under billboards along a path that once led between Union camps, soldiers standing guard on the perimeter of a campsite-turned-Honda dealership and a member of the 54th Massachusetts perusing the options at a Pickett's Buffet in front of a painting of the burning of Atlanta.
Beyond the 19th century
State of the Union was featured in Time magazine as a printed series and a video. The exhibit has also shown in Orlando, Fla., at George Mason University and at Chelsea Market in New York City.
Having opened on Nov. 1, it will hang in Warehouse Row until Jan. 31.
Should he have the chance to return to the subject, Segal said he would want to further explore the place of women and blacks in the conflict. As to why the Civil War remains vividly hooked into the Southern, and to a lesser degree the American, psyche, he pointed to something that is often best conveyed visually.
“Horwitz talks about the Civil War having never ended in the South because it was never resolved,” Segal said. “Some Southerners romanticize it, remember it nostalgically. I think we make it palatable by romanticizing the Civil War. It’s one of those topics that we will never grow tired of.”