Making Things Visible
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.
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.Cotter here drew my attention to Marshall, with whose work I am unfamiliar. The relevant work seems to be this triptych:
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."
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.