11 March 2007

Uses of Photography - "Exile of the Imaginary"

Well, here is a question. I came acrosss an advert for a current exhibition called "Exile of the Imaginary: Politics Aesthetics, Love" among the adverts in the most recent issue of ArtForum
(March 2007). I knew I'd seen the image in the poster someplace before. Sure enough it is a detail from a photograph taken at the lynching of John Holmes at St. James Park in San Jose, CA in 1933. I had seen related images (plates 80-84) in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America about which I've posted before. In that post and another I raised the issue of "meaning" and "use" in photography.

This poster raises, I think, some unsettling issues about the uses of photography. One of the artists included in the exhibition is Ken Gonzales-Day who last fall had an exhibition entitled "Lynching in the American West, 1850-1935" at CUE Art Foundation in NYC. (The exhibition was curated by Bruce Yonemoto and was accompanied by an essay composed by Juli Carson. Yonemoto is among the artists included in the "Exile" exhbition which is curated by Carson. Small world.) In any case, Gonzales-Day has undertaken to "erase" lynching as in this image:

According to the Artist: "More than simply retracing the forgotten lines of history, the Erased Lynching series directs our gaze to invisibility itself. Gleaned from the archive, regional museums, and eBay; these photographic images of Western lynchings were altered. The bodies of the condemned and the ropes are removed but the lynch mob, if present, remains fully visible, jeering, laughing, or pulling at the air in a deadly pantomime. As such, this series strives to make the invisible -visible." In this altered image the body of John Holmes no long swings from the tree above the assembled crowd (even though in the publicity still for the exhibition one can still make out the rope wrapped around the tree trunk).

Now, this strikes me as an astoundingly creative enterprise. I do not mean to criticize Gonzales-Day; in fact, I want to track down more of his work.* My worry, rather, is about the poster and the other publicity for the "Exile" show. As you can see, the poster reproduces a detail from the left side of this image (which, as the following image shows, Gonzales-Day reproduces as a large - 120 X 280 inch - mural). I am extremely uneasy about using this brightly colored slice of a retouched photograph of a lynching as a publicity poster that in no way acknowledges the original provenance of the image. ArtForum reproduces the larger black and white image I've lifted here in the same fuscia color as the bottom part of a full page advert that is itself embedded in a 100+ page expanse of other advertisements. (See page 227.) I cannot quite put my finger on it, but something seems amiss here.

As I wrote in my earlier posts, I think James Allen has done an immense service by pushing us to confront the evidence of systematic racial violence in the U.S.. Likewise, Gonzales-Day, by highlighting both the quite large number of lynchings in the Western states and the fact that Latinos constituted a disproportionate number of the victims of those acts of violence, has undertaken a much needed task. But images do not speak for themselves. And the publicity advertisements for the "Exile" show seem to me to suffer precisely because they re-embed a horrific event in speechless silence.
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*Gonzales-Day has published a book Lynching in the American West, 1850-1935 with Duke University Press (2006) in which he recounts his inquiry into the subject.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Stan B. said...

This definitely walks a very fine line. I'm all for more awareness in every nuance possible, but without the proper vigilance and/or context this could definitely run the risk of misuse, misinterpretation or misappropriation somewhere down the line...

11 March, 2007 23:08  
Blogger Stan B. said...

I do think the work a catalyst for reflection, and perhaps even eerily beautiful as the gallery shot seems to suggest. But in a country where factual and historical erasure has long been the norm, can't help but feel a bit... leery.

I can remember neither author nor title, but someone just came out with a compilation and history of towns in America where blacks were systematically driven out practically overnight (lynching being one of the prime motivational factors)- only to have the actual event(s) replaced with a much more convenient and far less malevolent "legend" as to why the darkies just up and left.

12 March, 2007 10:28  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Here we go:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7772527#7764501

12 March, 2007 10:31  

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