18 October 2008

Making Things Visible

On Thursday evening I attended a work-in-progress screening of a new film by a very talented local film-maker Carvin Eison entitled Shadows of the Lynching Tree. The title captures the subject. I anticipate that, when finished, this film will be provocative and extremely powerful. During the follow-up discussion, a set of themes occurred to me. The first was how long the shadows actually are. As I've noted here before, many of those commenting in print on the photographs that initially broke the ways U.S. military personnel were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib regularly draw analogies to lynching photographs. The focus in each instance was on those perpetrating the crimes instead of on their victims.

This, in turn, brought to mind a second theme (on which I've posted here and here) revolving around the difficulty of depicting power and powerlessness. The difficulty, in particular, is how one might mitigate the risk of exploiting victims or sensationalizing violence and suffering while still capturing the evils of, say, torture or terror or genocide. This brought to mind the work of Ken Gonzales Day who - as I noted here - has used some photoshop-like-technique to erase the victims out of lynching photographs, leaving behind only the perpetrators. Here for example is a detail from one of these altered photographs; it was initially taken at the lynching of John Holmes at St. James Park in San Jose, CA in 1933.

Detail St. James Park (2006) © Ken Gonzales Day

We no longer witness Holmes's body dangling from the tree. As a result we are able to see more clearly the spectators and perpetrators. Arguably, we can discern even more. In a perceptive short review for The New York Times of a 2006 exhibition of Gonzales Day's work, Holland Cotter wrote:
"In each of these pictures, though, the artist has erased the body of the victim, leaving everything else intact. The tree or telegraph post used for the hanging is there; so is the crowd of witnesses and executioners, posing for the camera or staring up at what is now empty space.

As the artist Kerry James Marshall demonstrated in paintings using lynching photographs and a comparable mode of selective erasure, the effect is very different from looking at the horrific unaltered pictures, where the victims continue to be exposed and shamed as objects of casual spectatorship, exactly as their killers intended. Mr. Gonzales-Day's work throws the emphasis on the spectators themselves and makes hard lines between then and now, them and us, difficult to draw."
Cotter here drew my attention to Marshall, with whose work I am unfamiliar. The relevant work seems to be this triptych:

Heirlooms and Accessories (2002) © Kerry James Marshall

Although in this reproduction you cannot quite make out the suppressed background, Marshall leaves a spectral impression of the original photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion Indiana. Each of the women whose face is encapsulated in a locket witnessed the event.

The way that Marshal lays the necklaces clearly suggests that the spectators lives, and those too, of their descendants, are tethered to this violent scene. With that gesture, he enables us to ponder things that might otherwise be occluded by horror - things like complicity and, thereby, inheritance and continuity. Like Gonzales Day he is using photography to provoke us into seeing that the subject of the images might just as well be victimizers as victims.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Gotta tell ya, I never needed any manipulation or encouragement whatsoever to take a long hard look at each and every person in those crowds- their facial expressions, body language, gestures, clothing, age, sex, proximity, etc.

They just don't seem that far removed...

18 October, 2008 21:00  
Blogger Public Squalor said...

Gonzales Day's attempt to fix attention on the spectators pictured in the image is admirable, but I think it also undermines some of the power of the image. Part of what makes these photos so horrific is how commonplace the lynching scenes are, how matter-of-course the event seems to be for the onlookers. Removing the victim seems to frustrate that to some degree.

It's also notable that a number of his re-worked images lack any on-site spectators or executioners. Perhaps the fact that the images are presented in a book on lynching mitigates the need for each image to tell the whole story, but for me at least, including the victims helps emphasize the evil of the onlookers.

I guess at the end of the day, artists have to recognize their limitation to control the interpretation of their work, which is always limited or enhanced by what the viewer brings to it.

peace -

19 October, 2008 09:08  
Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...

I’m very sympathetic with Public Squalor’s sentiments – indeed, the removal of the victims, does, in mine eye, almost renders the images as worthless documents. As a photographer, and a student of qualitative and quantitative research methods, such manipulation of historical/documentary photographs is simply an anathema.

It’s self-evident that images which contain the victims are far more powerful in terms of our understanding of these events, and what meaning we give to them. It appears as if Day is treating those who view his work as unsophisticated children who must be guided towards his understanding of these images.

Very interesting blog BTW.

22 October, 2008 07:02  

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