Radford University Professor of History Richard Straw invites readers to take a stroll through Virginia history in his newly-published book, "Rockbridge County: The Michael Miley Collection."
Straw's book, part of the popular "Images of America" series, uses the photography of Michael Miley (1841-1918) to tell the story of Rockbridge County and the Shenandoah Valley from the end of the Civil War through the turn of the twentieth century.
"I just find his work incredibly beautiful," said Straw, who has taught courses at RU about the Old and New South, Appalachian history, and Southern music. "I poked around and found out that there really hadn't been much done about him. He's a great artist and I wanted to get his photographs out there where people could see them."
Miley, who is most famous for his many pictures of Robert E. Lee in the period following the Civil War, was an unusual photographer for his time. He was interested in capturing people smiling or laughing, neighbors going about their business or studies of clouds in the countryside.
According to Straw, early photography was cumbersome and difficult. Because long exposures were needed, it is uncommon to see subjects of the era smiling or posing. Similarly, capturing nature could be difficult because any movement might disrupt an exposure. Miley's mission to capture a more dynamic view of the people and country around him was ahead of its time.
Miley is also notable for developing a way to produce color photography. He patented his method, but never capitalized on it, which modern photographers might see as a huge missed opportunity.
"I believe that this is the only, or at least, one of the only Images of America books that deal with one photographer's collection," Straw said. "But he called himself a photographic artist and we have so many great photos from Miley."
It took Straw around a year to collect Miley's photography of Rockbridge County, research the people and places in the photos, and write captions for each picture. In the process, his interest in Miley was ignited and he might pursue further research on the intriguing photographer.