Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Lynching Photographs

Lynching Photographs (Defining Moments in American Photography) by Shawn Michelle Smith and Dora Apel is part of a new series from the University of California Press of books about photography, along with studies of Alexander Gardner's book about the U.S. civil war, and Weegee's Naked City. The books are small, basically extended essays - I am curious to see what else will be published.

Whereas the Gardner & Weegee books deal with photography which is seen these days primarily as artistic or in an artistic context - collected institutionally, exhibited, published & celebrated as such; the work discussed in Lynching Photographs has a much darker pedigree & history. Byproducts of lynchings, these images functioned as souvenirs & trophies for the participants, as residue of mob violence which invoked both the done deed as well as a threat of more to come. These are extremely unsettling images in their gleefully banal racism & sadism. Smiling children, smiling revelers - at these public murders. If anything, reading written accounts which detail the specifics of the lynchings is perhaps more to the point, in the thoroughness & extremities of the violence done, which is not articulated so fully in a photograph. Photographs in contrast are much more fragmentary, inarticulate.

The contingency of the imagery is discussed by both authors in the use of the photos by journalists and organizations such as the NAACP to decry lynchings. Both essays, by Smith & Apel, are fascinating in their discussions of how the photographs were used by White and Black groups, from the KKK to the NAACP to the Communist Party. Perhaps it is the relative unfamiliarity of the imagery, unlike say something like war photography which circulates constantly in print, on television & on the internet, & on the museum wall, but I find the photos themselves almost unbearable to look at, & the racist hatred which could generate them quite palpable. Looking at them too much seems to do very little except dull me to them, whereas reading about them does allow one some psychic room to understand them more. Another curiosity about the essays is that one author is a professor of American Studies, the other an Art Historian, & yet such specializations seem a moot point with the material - it would be impossible to distinguish one from the other if it were not pointed out who was who.

Reading the book made me go back to Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, which is the same collection which was on view at Roth Horowitz, which is discussed in the Smith essay, and later published by Twin Palms Press. The gallery show was extremely popular, & as cited in Lynching Photographs, without interpretation. While such a strategy may be suitable for a gallery exhibit, I cannot help but think that such work is near impossible to look at without some discussion. This may be just the ignorance of my own sheltered "Northern" existence, whereas as I understand it, the collector of the images, James Allen, is from the South & lynching is identified primarily as being Southern (although one can find examples from Indiana & Minnesota in the book). As a book, Without Sanctuary, is handsomely designed & printed, & there are trenchant essays included. Still, it is troublesome to see such a luxurious book of atrocities. As a book it may function a bit in the manner of Ernst Friedrich's War Against War, but the opacity of photography, its contingencies, is still a troubling mirror of our world.

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