Atlanta is a vibrant, diverse and complex city with an even more complex past. Matthew Brandt is a Los Angeles-based photographer whose work conflates subject and material. With Atlanta as his subject, Brandt’s 1864, a series of silver albumen prints on view at Jackson Fine Art through July 1, comprises photographs appropriated from the Civil War-era photographs of George N. Barnard (1819–1902) hung alongside still-life compositions Brandt created from Styrofoam peaches mass-produced in China and purchased on eBay. Photographs of two such seemingly disparate subjects are unified here, at least visually, by a palimpsest-like accrual — or attrition — of time and an evocative sepia-to-faded-rose hue, two effects that lend an overall elegiac sense of the muteness of the past in both subjects, whether historic or contemporary.
While these are appealing images for which a visual appreciation, initially at least, requires little explanation, the symbolic conversation attempted by the artist does. But first, a little history:
Barnard was summoned to Atlanta in September 1864 after Union forces under the command of William T. Sherman captured the city. While in the employ of the (Union) Army of the Cumberland, Barnard traveled with Sherman’s campaign from Nashville to near Chattanooga before arriving in Atlanta and traveling on to Savannah with the general’s infamous March to the Sea. Barnard remains best known for Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, his 1866 book of 61 albumen silver prints. Barnard, whose images were made from that eponymous campaign, worked with large glass negatives developed on site, a travail that required a portable darkroom, chemicals and fresh water for the large glass negative plates and the time to prepare, expose and develop them.
Under such conditions, it is a wonder in itself that Barnard’s photographs exist at all, and with them, a story that may have otherwise been lost. What, then, is Brandt’s narrative? Is narrative even relevant? How will he fuse his concept of Atlanta with the substance of Atlanta? What materials, then, to consider?
These questions raises interesting possibilities, and perhaps even more interesting answers, none of them facile or quick.
Brandt exhibited a keen sense of place in previous work, drawing physical elements from his source material into his photography process. In Dust, from 2014, he produced his own versions of historical photographs of demolished structures rendered in pigments from debris collected from the buildings’ contemporary sites. In another earlier series, Lakes and Reservoirs, Brandt bathed his land and waterscapes in the particular waters of the photograph’s subject, and in 2016’s Pictures From Flint (Bridges Over Flint), he hand-toned silver gelatin prints in a way that focused attention on the impurities in the Flint, Michigan, water supply.
In those series, subject and material convened in artifacts of place to create meaning. In his current project, however, there is no such satisfying juxtaposition. Brandt claims to have reinterpreted Barnard’s images of a Sherman-era Atlanta “by making images of a shattered city into peach pie,” hence the peachy, rose-colored cast. An explanation will follow as to his process, but this allusion felt kitschy bordering on dismissive, a shallow caricature of a city’s reputation as capital of the “Peach State.” Perhaps there was more . . .
Brandt’s appropriation of these historic photographs seems hasty and without examination, or at least mention, of the cost of the Civil War, its meaning to the country, both South and North, and how this city rebuilt, recreated and redefined itself. His simplistic take suggests an incuriosity that undermines a stated (again, in gallery materials) intent to “[evince] a complex understanding of the history his project excavates.” If there is a complexity of thought in Brandt’s pairing of “shattered city” and peach pie, it eludes a sense of history. It is true that the ascendancy of the peach as Georgia’s cash crop correlated with a decline in the production of cotton as slave labor was abolished, so much so that Georgia earned its reputation as the “Peach State” in the decades just after the war’s end, and that it lingers as our state’s nickname even after we have fallen behind other states in peach production, but Brandt’s leap from decimated city to the pleasantries of peach pie is unsupported, too broad, and frankly, too glib.
Brandt began work on 1864 earlier this year after discovering Barnard’s images in the online catalog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during his first visit to Atlanta. The rights to the photographs, all of which are in the public domain, are held by the Library of Congress. Brandt printed negatives from these files and made contact prints, like Barnard, using traditional albumen components of egg whites, silver nitrate and salt, but incorporating the ingredients of a peach pie into his preparatory mixture. A “recipe” for “Matthew Brandt’s Peach Pie” appears in gallery materials, including the peaches (he used canned), eggs, salt, sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter mixture he used to coat his paper before brushing on the silver nitrate and making the negative.
Brandt’s most noticeable physical manipulation of Barnard’s images is his crop of the originals, most often — as in 1864, 03480aS1 and 1864, 03475a2 — in ways that shorten or almost eradicate the foreground, emphasizing an empty sky. (Incidentally, Barnard wasn’t a straight photojournalist. He often made separate negatives of clouds to dramatize those empty skies and later printed in combination with battleground scenes to lend the emotional impact he desired for the scene.)
In Barnard’s photograph of a wagon train on Marietta Street — represented here in Brandt’s 1864, 033355a1 — a tall ladder rests against a now-empty flagpole, presumably shorn of its flag after Sherman’s arrival in the city. This pairing seems to be the metaphoric focus of Barnard’s image, but the ladder is all but missing from Brandt’s version. In others, the anonymity of a scene — rooftops beneath empty skies, void of identifying detail or his crop of Barnard’s “Soldiers Relaxing by Guns of Captured Fort” that shows only the large tree in the background and not the soldiers — may be Brandt’s point. (Barnard, himself, often used the solitary tree as a metaphor.) Is there in this obscurity the sense that time erases everything in a Carl Sandburg “What place is this?/Where are we now?” kind of way? Brandt doesn’t convince.
Barnard’s Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign remains one of the foundational publications of 19th-century photography. Having made his photographs both during and after a war (returning to several battle sites) that had torn this country asunder, he created the book as an act of storytelling and remembrance. His images served a role that had traditionally been that of painting; with his romantic skies and aestheticized compositions, Barnard made art out of war. Perhaps the novelty of Barnard’s photographs was enough for Brandt who first encountered them while here in February, but for those of us familiar with the history and especially that of our own city, more is required to create the symbolic conversation Brandt desired, no matter how deft his handling of the photographs.