Cambridge City, Indiana, 2013 Jeanine Michna-Bales

A new photography book visualizes what those 19th-century routes look like today.

Much has been written about the Underground Railroad, but visual documentation is scant. In a new book, Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad ($40, Princeton Architectural Press), the photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales documents one possible path north—from Louisiana to Ontario—and maps this 1,400-mile trek through woods, swamps, and the fleeting moments of respite a traveler may have found on their journey out of slavery.

Southern Pine Forest. Following El Camino Real, LaSalle Parish, Louisiana, 2014 (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

The series of photographs flips from deserted plantations in Louisiana to empty railroad bridges in Indiana, with every image cloaked by dark light. The images, shot at night, emote vastness and strangeness—you can feel how remote these places might have felt to travelers passing through.

All of the images capture the journey’s scenery as it stands today: gazing at a slave cemetery amid naked trees in Jefferson County, Mississippi; following a green river along Edmonson County, Kentucky; arriving at the St. Clair River in Michigan, looking out at Canada on the horizon, framed by morning skies.

On the Way to the Hicklin House Station. San Jacinto, Indiana, 2013 (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

Michna-Bales relied on research pieced together from books, original documents, and academic papers to plan out the series, snapped between 2013 and 2015. The photos are devoid of people, though community and collaboration were key in the journey north. Writing in The Atlantic in 2015, Adam Goodheart noted that abolitionist groups often “made little secret of assisting runaways—in fact, they trumpeted it in pamphlets, periodicals, and annual reports,” as well as bake sales. But these photos were inspired by what travelers might have seen on their voyage. “It was a forest at night that evoked such a sense of mystery and foreboding that I knew this was exactly how I wanted to shoot the entire series,” writes Michna-Bales in the introduction.

Some of the book’s most affecting shots contain nothing but land—fields and forests, empty and quiet, inviting viewers to consider what it might have felt like to travel along them.

Resting Place. Church Hill, Mississippi, 2015 (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

Through Darkness to Light, $40 from Princeton Architectural Press.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A toddler breathes from a nebulizer while sitting in a crib.
    Environment

    How Scientists Discovered What Dirty Air Does to Kids’ Health

    The landmark Children’s Health Study tracked thousands of children in California over many years—and transformed our understanding of air pollution’s harms.

  2. Life

    Who’s Really Buying Property in San Francisco?

    A lot of software developers, according to an unprecedented new analysis.

  3. Environment

    No, Puerto Rico’s New Climate-Change Law Is Not a ‘Green New Deal’

    Puerto Rico just adopted legislation that commits it to generating all its power from renewable sources. Here’s what separates that from what’s going on in D.C.

  4. Equity

    The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed

    Manhattan’s new luxury mega-project was partially bankrolled by an investor visa program called EB-5, which was meant to help poverty-stricken areas.

  5. a photo of a man surveying a home garage.
    Transportation

    How Single-Family Garages Can Ease California's Housing Crisis

    Given the affordable housing crisis, California cities should encourage single-family homeowners to convert garages into apartments and accessory dwelling units.