Memorial Days; Chris Heisey’s Monumental Decisions

After a while, showing wasn’t enough. Telling became the point.

And because Chris Heisey knows his Civil War, he has a lot to tell in his photographs.

Illinois Memorial, Vicksburg. “This is a shot from the film days, taken on Fuji Velvia, using the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer. The Bermuda grass goes red with the sun setting and the filter.”
All Photos © 2009, Chris Heisey, All Rights Reserved

Chris has been photographing Civil War battlefields for almost 20 years, and at the start he took straightforward record shots. “I’m self-taught,” he says, “and maybe what I was doing in the beginning was simply learning to take pictures. Then, as the years went by, I began thinking, how can I present these things differently?”

Chris realized that he couldn’t think only about taking what a scene offered; about making the most of the obvious. He began to consider what he could give to the scene. He started adding weather elements and carefully considering the quality of the light at various times of day. “I wanted people to really feel the emotion and drama of these places, so I went when there was evocative light or when the weather was miserable. I wasn’t just trying to show something, I was trying to say something, too.”

South Mountain (Maryland) memorial to a North Carolina regiment. “I went there in the rain because I knew what I wanted to do. The cobweb was an extra.”

Chris’ interest in the Civil War began in the second grade with easy-to-read books about Abraham Lincoln, and it stayed with him through college history classes, but it was Ken Burns’ landmark PBS series that really inspired his battlefield photography. “The contemporary photos I saw in that series got to me—like fog rising off the Chickamauga Creek or a shot of Harpers Ferry. I remember thinking, I think I can do that…maybe even better.”

One key to doing it better was dedication. “I always think about shooting when the light is best,” Chris says, and it’s not unusual for him to be up at 2am to drive from his Pennsylvania home to a distant battlefield. “If you see monuments and landmarks when the sun’s coming up, you’re going to see something very different than most people see.”

Burnside’s Bridge, Antietam. “I like to go on the anniversaries of the battles. This was shot on September 17th last year, right after sunrise. I used a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer.”

Hazel Grove, Chancellorsville. “It was snowing and I got up at two in the morning and drove down. I know this area, and I knew what I’d be seeing when I got there. I’d previsualized this…it was the shot I wanted.”

Weather became a motivator. A self-described weather freak, Chris is constantly checking weather models, looking for rain, snow, fog, and ice. “When there’s an ice storm, I get in the car and go.”