Exhibit offers unique view of Civil War

'Pinhole camera' images to be featured at Morris Museum

Willie Anne Wright,
Chancellorsville: George Armstrong Custer, undated. Courtesy of the artist.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:12 PM
Last updated 6:31 PM
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Willie Anne Wright grew up in a town saturated with Civil War history.

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New Market: Cannon and Confederate Cavalry, undated. Courtesy of the artist.

  Willie Anne Wright,
Willie Anne Wright,
New Market: Cannon and Confederate Cavalry, undated. Courtesy of the artist.

But it wasn’t until she watched her first battle reenactment that she appreciated her roots in Richmond, Va.

“It really got your blood going,” Wright said about witnessing a cavalry charge through a wheat field at Cedar Mountain, Va.

That seminal moment came around the time she was exploring a new medium for her artwork that dates to about the same period in history.

Pinhole photography relies on a lensless camera to capture an image on film. While the fundamentals of photography were understood as far back as the fifth century BC, it wasn’t until the late 1850s that scientists were able to capture images on film.

Wright, originally a painter, was introduced to the medium during a photography class in 1972. She was hooked after making her first camera.

“It seemed like a door opened, like I was supposed to do it,” Wright said Tuesday in advance of a presentation Thursday at the Morris Museum of Art. Her work, entitled Civil War Redux: Pinhole Photographs by Willie Anne Wright, will be on display at the museum until Sept. 9.

Photographers during the Civil War used a different method of gaining exposures involving glass and chemicals. But Wright felt a bond with them because pinhole photography is equally cumbersome and time consuming.

The images she has captured of the Civil War re-enactors have an otherworldly feel to them that cannot be reproduced with modern methods. Sepia-toned and slightly blurry, they perfectly capture the triumph and tragedy of the characters from that period.

There are more challenges to the work than just toting around a pinhole camera and its accompanying gear. Even savvy history buffs are confused when she presents what appears to be an ordinary box and asks to take their picture.

“I have to try and use some humor like, ‘Can I have eight to 12 seconds of your life?’” Wright said, referring to the time her subjects have to remain still for a clear image.

Some of her favorite prints are of the war widows. As a widow herself, she understands the pain of loss and feels it’s a fitting memorial for the Civil War. She’s also captured Union naval officers posing on a replica of the ironclad Monitor.

One of the most unique images is a Gen. George Armstrong Custer reenactor posing by his pickup truck. While somewhat jarring at first, Custer’s confidence is perfectly captured in his casual lean against a tailgate that prominently reads Dodge.

Wright tries to avoid anachronisms in her images, but she couldn’t pass up the chance to capture “Custer’s last Dodge.”

Wright is currently experimenting with ways to use technology with her pinhole camera. But she doubts she will turn to digital cameras as a future medium.
“That takes away the romance and mystery of it,” she said.

If you go


Willie Anne Wright will give a free presentation about her work at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Morris Museum of Art. A reception will follow.

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