went to the 2013 PhotoNOLA
portfolio reviews in New Orleans
with nine images from a personal
project she’d been working on for a
decade, wondering if anyone would
be interested. The foreboding
nighttime photographs depicted
landmarks and safe houses
along a 1300-mile Underground
Railroad route from Louisiana
to the Canadian border at Port
Huron, Michigan. The work
impressed her PhotoNOLA
reviewers, who immediately
offered guidance about turning
the project into a book.
Within a year, she had offers
from two publishers. She ended
up signing a contract with
Princeton Architectural Press,
which released her book in
March. Titled Through Darkness
to Light, the book includes more
than 100 photographs, detailed
documentation and a foreword
by former Congressman and UN
Ambassador Andrew Young. Fifty
images from the project are also
featured in an exhibition that will
travel the U.S. for the next five years.
Michna-Bales came up with
the idea for the project around
2002. She had grown up in
Indiana, and learned about the
Underground Railroad in school.
“I remember being fascinated by
what [slaves] had to go through for
their freedom,” she says. The idea
for the project came to her after
she completed a series of images
about places she had taken walks.
“You have that muse sitting on
your shoulder, and the idea of what
a walk to freedom would look like
kind of came out,” she says.
She started researching
Underground Railroad routes. But
information was scant. “I would
get frustrated and put it away
and go back to my day job” as an
ad agency art director, she says.
Her break came in 2009 at the
Indiana Historical Society research
library, where she found a folder
of notes, amassed by a volunteer
librarian, on every reference to
the Underground Railroad the
librarian had ever come across.
Michna-Bales started following
the leads to local historical
societies in Louisiana, Mississippi,
Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and
Michigan. She was eventually able
to pinpoint landmarks and safe
houses that are difficult to find in
small towns along the route.
One of her challenges was
figuring out how to depict the
locations in a compelling way.
She made tintypes of some
locations during the day, but
Jeanine Michna-Bales spent years researching the locations of obscure Underground Railroad stations across several states, then photographed them at night to
capture a sense of foreboding. BELOW: “Look for the Grey Barn Out Back,” 2013. A tunnel led underneath a road from Joshua Eliason, Jr.’s barn to another Underground
Railroad station in Centerville, Indiana.
HOW TO PUBLISH YOUR BOOK
RAILROAD BY NIGHT
Jeanine Michna-Bales discusses her unusual
project about the Underground Railroad, and how
she developed relationships that led her to a
book contract. BY DAVID WALKER