Portraits from the Race to the Dan

I am not a historian. I enjoy history and over the last few years I’ve enjoyed the opportunity of taking photos at “living history” events. Along the way I’ve learned that most reenactments are not – strictly speaking – an exact recreation of the original event. There is no way that they could be. Trying to gather thousands of troops to the exact spot where skirmishes and battles took place is simply not feasible. Too many people, too many changes to terrain, towns, and roads in the intervening years. And, in some cases, the events took place over the course of weeks, not hours. Such was the case with the Race to the Dan.

The Rowan Museum History Club organized a reenactment for the 240th anniversary of the “race” to draw attention to the area’s contributions in the American War for Independence. When the long-awaited date finally arrived, it was met with cloudy skies and rainy conditions. Those aren’t the best conditions for black-powder weapons like muskets and 18th-century cannons, but they make me happy as a photographer! The light is soft and diffused, making it perfect for portraits.

When I arrived, I was told that due to the weather all of the weapons demonstrations and the battle reenactments were canceled for the day. So I turned my attention to the people who were there and began to take advantage of that light, shooting a variety of “candid portraits”. I almost never ask a subject to pose at an event like this. Even these images were caught in the moment. I later removed people or other distracting elements and added the background and textures to emulate a painting from the period.

I prefer catching them as they are, doing what they do. Once someone is aware of the camera, they often become stiff, and their expression changes to what they think I might like. So I try to shoot from a distance, undetected. While the young lady below certainly knew that I was there, she wasn’t posing for me. I suspect she was just trying to decide how to get around me as she worked her way down the muddy path.

Shooting inside buildings can create beautiful light, as it passes through a window or door, especially on a cloudy day. But those same conditions also mean that I’m dealing with a fairly dark room, which can create “noisy” or even blurred images. The image of the general in blue, above, is clearly not sharp, but I think that it still works. Here are more examples of that soft window and door light.

The last of these images are partly posed, I suppose. In both cases, I saw them in beautiful light but since they were speaking to someone, with their faces turned away from the light, I knew the resulting photo wouldn’t be as good as it could be. So I called the soldier’s name, causing him to turn toward me. He smiled as soon as he recognized what I was doing, but by then I had the shot I wanted. In the case of the lady, I simply asked her to turn her head toward the light coming through an opening in the woods. I’m glad that she indulged me!

Eventually, the clouds broke, the armies emerged from their camps and the battle was on! But the moment it ended the skies opened and we all retreated to drier spaces. So I did get some battle images from the Race to the Dan, but these, without a doubt, were my favorites of the day. You can see the entire gallery here.

I’d love to hear what you think, either by commenting on the individual images, or in the space below.

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