The Photographer Who Documents the Former Sites of Confederate Monuments

Robert E. Lee, erected 1884, New Orleans. Photo: Matthew Shain

“I’m from California,” Matthew Shain says, “and the Civil War was very academic to me.” That all changed when he traveled for the first time to New Orleans, where statues of generals and slaveholders stood all over town. Then the monuments started to vanish, as, over the past few years, cities and their governments belatedly realized that they had to reckon with the representations of white supremacists their civic forefathers had cast in bronze and zinc. And as the statues came off their pedestals — sometimes with official sanction, sometimes disruptively — Shain observed that “these symbols were being removed, rewriting our collective history, without having new symbols put in their place. It’s a transitional time, trying to find more inclusive and equitable ways of telling the story.” After all, he adds, “a lot of people who liked the monuments didn’t connect with the history they really represented — they were just landmarks that they were used to. And other people liked them for very dark-hearted reasons.”

He set out to photograph the pedestals where they had stood, and so far he’s covered five states, including New York, with a few more to go. His are typological pictures, a bit like those famous water-tower photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher, though without the hyper-rigid formality. (They’re on view in “The Way We Are Now,” a group show at Aperture, through August 16.) All are in black and white — though, Shain hastens to say, “I didn’t want them to be nostalgic. But there’s an ambiguity there.” Every one is framed to emphasize the empty space above. In noting the statues’ absence, he makes them extremely present.

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, erected 1957, The Bronx. Photo: Matthew Shain
Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument, erected 1903, Baltimore. Photo: Matthew Shain
Chief Justice Roger Taney, erected 1872, Annapolis, Maryland. Photo: Matthew Shain
John Henninger Reagan, erected 1933, Austin, Texas. Photo: Matthew Shain
Jefferson Davis monument, erected 1964, Memphis, Tennessee. Photo: Matthew Shain

*This article appears in the July 23, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Documenting the Former Sites of Confederate Monuments