28 December 2007

Lynching Photographs

This slender volume - Dora Apel & Shawn Michelle Smith. Lynching Photographs. University of California Press, 2007. - is the second installment of a promising new series called "Defining Moments in American Photography." I have not seen the other volumes, which focus more narrowly on particular photographers (Alexander Gardner and Weegee). But Apel and Smith set an admirably high standard, even as they broaden focus onto the place of an especially gruesome "genre" of American photography - photographs of lynching, mostly of African-American men by mobs of Whites in the period from roughly 1880 through 1930. In part the authors (each of whom contributes an extended essay) take as their point of departure the kinds of images of collected in the exhibition Without Sanctuary. The volume itself focuses directly and narrowly on the subject announced in the title. That is as it should be. However, in their discussions of the uses and impact of lynching photographs in particular, the authors pose at least two crucially important, significantly broader, theoretical questions. First, how is photographic meaning grounded in and transformed by the divergent purposes for which different agents use images? I have raised this issue in several posts on lynching photographs here before [1] [2] [3]. Second, what sorts of response might or should photographs of such cruelly degrading and dehumanizing practices elicit? This is a topic that frequently evinces a rather despairing reponse from critics who note that photographs alone seem to have little political efficacy. But, as Dora Apel makes esepcially clear lynching photographs directly influenced political movements, first against lynching itself and subsequently in the more general struggle for Civil Rights. That is a refreshing and hopeful insight.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Their power has certainly withstood the test of time. Perhaps in part because you can't really defend the action depicted with any kind of rational excuse or justification. Then or now.

It is mankind stripped bare and naked, at its fearful, maddening worst. Adults as frenzied children, voluntarily driving themselves into an orgy and celebration of hatred and death. Unlike the tragic accident, it was totally preventable. Unlike war, there could be no excuse of self defense. Unlike a crime of passion, most of the participants would have no direct connection or knowledge of the man, or the act for which he would be tortured, slaughtered, and then dismembered or burned.

Common, everyday, "civilized" citizens behaving lower than any "savage" at their worst. And that knowledge haunts us to this day, because we all know it's still within us.

29 December, 2007 03:00  

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