When professor Michael Mergen moved to Farmville several years ago to begin teaching at Longwood, he was struck by the vibrancy of the town’s history.
"I thought of that famous Faulkner line: ‘The past is never dead. It isn’t even past,’" said Mergen, a photographer who hails from Philadelphia. "That idea stuck in my head, and, when the issues surrounding the Confederate flag began getting a lot of press in the wake of the Charleston shootings this summer, I took note of the legacy of the Civil War that we often overlook right in our backyards."
Mergen took that thought and turned it into a full-scale summer project, photographing nearly every Civil War monument in Virginia that depicted a soldier. Nearly every county seat in Virginia has such a statue, and the series of images Mergen captured of them caught the attention of the New York Times Magazine, which ran a spread of his work in the Oct. 18 edition.
"The real lesson for students is to take a look at their immediate surroundings with a critical eye," said Mergen. "You don’t have to be in a war zone or on Air Force One to take great photographs—they exist in your own community. That’s what we teach at Longwood: engaged citizenship. For citizen artists, photography can be integrated in that in a way that’s extraordinarily powerful."
The photographs of the soldier monuments are striking—most overtly because many of the faces were ordered from the same company and cast from the same mold. In various conditions, the monuments depict soldiers young and old, cavalry and infantry, and ask the viewer to re-examine unresolved issues that the nation still grapples with.
This series is not Mergen’s only work that has the Civil War at its core. In April 2015, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the war, Mergen exhibited a series of photographs of regional Civil War landscapes, which he used as the backgrounds for rubbings of corresponding highway markers. The result was a stunning juxtaposition of past and present that drew praise from exhibition visitors.
The photography project was funded by a Longwood faculty research and development grant.