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Poetry to Photography: Walt Whitman’s War Legacy

Roanoke College Students Cyanotype Portraits
Roanoke College Students Cyanotype Portraits


By Brieanah Gouveia


In Fintel Library on March 11 at 7:30 p.m. Copenhaver Artist in Residence, Binh Danh spoke about his collaboration with Roanoke College English professor Robert Schultz. The two began working together in 2007 after Schultz was inspired by Danh’s leafprints which focused on victims of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam War. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s writing on the American Civil War, this creative duo sought to monumentalize the tragedy and cost of war, as well as highlight the process of renewal that it can generate. Their actions culminated into a body of work entitled, War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Renewal.

Through their work Danh and Schultz aimed to “memorialize the experience of war by concentrating on the faces of individual soldiers, the landscapes where they fought, and our collective gestures of remembrance.” Using nineteenth century technology, cyanotype photographs and portraits developed directly onto leaves revivify the intimate history of America’s past, while simultaneously expressing the concerns of contemporary minds, such as in the reflective war poetry of Schultz.

Another instance in which War Memoranda unites the past and present is that many of the portraits in this exhibition were printed onto leaves gathered from trees that grew on land fought at in battle during the Civil War. Two of Whitman’s own leaf-printed portraits were developed on plants from his own garden in Camden, New Jersey.

In addition to collaborating with Schultz, Danh also worked with a small group of Roanoke College students. During a previous residency he created a book of cyanotype portraits of these students, in which the variously blue-hued images serve as further commentary on Whitman’s poetry.

A reception followed Danh’s lecture, during which students were able to talk more personally with Danh and Schultz. For those who missed the lecture, War Memoranda will be on display at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke until May 23. Currently, Fintel Library has its own rare copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, arguably the most important work of American poetry ever, published in 1855, on display as well.

For more information on the past or current projects of either of these artists, visit: binhdanh.com and robertschultz.com.