‘America Revisited’ looks at spaces over time

“Karl Bodmer’s America Revisited: Landscape Views Across Time,” photography by Robert M. Lindholm; introduction and annotations by Lindholm and W. Raymond Wood. Forward by David C. Hunt. University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. $45.

As a fairly recent transplant to Baton Rouge, I frequently wonder why the barracks buildings near the State Capitol were referred to as the “Pentagon Barracks” when it was clear that there were only four buildings, not the five that the name suggests.

Even when asking natives of the city for clarification on this, I did not get a detailed enough explanation. The results of searching for more information on the National Parks Service web site assured me that, in fact, there were originally five buildings; but the site does not mention what happened to that fifth.

Wikipedia offers an explanation; and it is only slightly better. It notes that the fifth side was originally a commissary-warehouse; but, per a citation to the Louisiana Capitol History and Tour web pages hosted by the Louisiana House of Representatives, this structure was so poorly constructed that it was torn down within a year.

Just when I had given up on getting a more stimulating account, I received a review copy of “Karl Bodmer’s America Revisited: Landscape Views Across Time.” Right there, on pages 70-71, is an explanation that involves the blowing up of the “Confederate armored ram Arkansas” during a last-ditch effort to retake Baton Rouge from the Union forces and the collateral damage that is suspected to have destroyed that fifth structure — the “fifth wall facing the river.” Now, that’s more like it — walls exploding and ships sinking provide a much more exciting history than the tearing down of shoddy construction!

The motivation behind this book, these images, and the story is a brilliant idea by the primary author, photographer Robert M. Lindholm, to revisit with his camera landscapes drawn and painted in 1832-34 by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer. The story gets better. Bodmer was accompanied by the German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied whose journals of their expedition across North America were illustrated by Bodmer’s art work.

The blurb from the publisher states that from 1985 to 2002 Lindholm and his collaborator, anthropologist W. Raymond Wood, made trips to the places Bodmer had artistically chronicled in the mid-nineteenth century.

When they found these places, photographs were taken and text written comparing the old to the new, creating a stunning volume pairing the hand wrought images with the photographic — page facing page.

These sixty-seven comparisons show the reader a dramatic vision of change to both the natural and the man-made environment of this country taking place over a span of more than 160 years.

Happily for me, one of those comparisons is of a watercolor of the “Military Barracks at Baton Rouge” to a contemporary photograph of the same scene.