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