To search, type one or more key words below.
Search Search the web.
 Page Bottom 

Black Life Photos

REVISIONS; Horrific, Heroic or Banal, Black Life in the Artist's Lens

By Margo Jefferson

Going page by page through Deborah Willis's grand book ''Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present'' was what finally made it possible for me to go, page by page, through ''Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,'' where the earliest photo dates from 1870 (lynchings took place earlier) and the last from 1960 (lynchings took place later, too).

The ''Reflections in Black'' exhibition, organized by Ms. Willis, is touring the country and has yet to come to New York City. I had seen an exhibition of the lynching photographs last winter at the New-York Historical Society; I found them horrific and necessary to look at, but at the time paying money for the book felt embarrassingly voyeuristic, even a little obscene.

As to why I would discuss lynching photographs during religious and festive holidays: if such holidays mean anything, it is because these celebrations mean taking questions of brutality, sacrifice and redemption seriously. And as visual evidence and testimony, ''Reflections in Black'' helps repudiate once again the awful lies and obsessions that created lynching.

The images in ''Without Sanctuary'' (Twin Palms Press) belong to several genres. Like the pictures of Cambodian prisoners taken by their interrogators and torturers, they record what we can call civil war crimes. The lynching pictures were taken by local or traveling photographers who made a killing (pun intended) selling them to the citizens. The images are also what the historian Leon F. Litwack calls, in his introduction, race pornography: they were often made into picture postcards that were mailed, with curt, gleeful or venomous messages to friends and foes with nary a peep from the United States postal authorities.

They are visual anthropology, too. You can't look at these black bodies, beaten, burned and hanging from trees, lampposts and bridges, without thinking of the savage blood-lust rituals that scholars spend their lives investigating in other countries. Then you read about the gap between the accusations (the favorites were murder, rape or attempted rape of a white person) that led to the lynchings and the actual facts behind them (black economic success, union organizing or the kinds of things whites did constantly and got minor or no punishment for, like gambling, stealing a pair of shoes and ''talking big'' or simply displaying ''utter worthlessness.'')

You start looking at the perpetrators and spectators who treated lynchings as family affairs, civic celebrations, picnics (the preferred term was ''Negro barbecue'') and some kind of sexual catharsis. A lot of the men have the rugged dusty look of bit players in old westerns, and they strike movie attitudes for the camera or clasp the ankles of the dead man sternly.

Some wear white shirts, ties and straw boaters. (One young man with immaculately styled hair looks dressed to call on his sweetheart once the lynching's done.) And they give their children private viewings. The virtue of white womanhood is upheld by placing one's daughters (in crisp little dresses) around the tree from which a black man hangs. The black servant is there, too, in her white uniform. She has managed to turn away.

What anthropologists would not ask who these people were with their primitive, barbaric practices? What belief system did they invoke to justify such deeds? Why were they considered civilized?

When my niece left the Historical Society lynching exhibition, she said: ''They made it up. They made it all up.'' And to open ''Reflections in Black'' (W. W. Norton) is to feel just that. To which race does the phrase ''the race problem'' really apply? That's the question asked by generations of black photographers as they recorded -- unearthed is probably the best word -- lives unknown to most white Americans until quite recently. And the point was not just the spectacular and the uplifting. The point was the small-time and the commonplace, too, even the trifling facts of life that people forced to justify their existence learned to fear as weaknesses or loathe as mortal flaws.

Ms. Willis organizes the book into five time periods, supplying a useful overview of each, along with short biographies of the photographers. As she makes clear, one all-pervasive aim was to commemorate black achievements. There are fine formal portraits of political leaders and beautifully intimate ones of musicians, dancers and artists.

But achievement could just mean doing everyday things most whites didn't imagine you doing. It isn't only the glamorous black 19th- and 20th-century aristocrats with their elegant airs and wardrobes and looks that make you think their ancestors must have come from every known continent. It's the nurses' training schools, the baseball players and beauty queens, the all-male card games in bars, carefully angled hats of women on a Bronx street corner waiting to be hired as low-paid domestics. The restaurants, barbershops, beauty shops and funeral homes that were part of what black writers through the years have called Bronzeville, Negroland, Aframerica or the 'Hood.

You will find heroism, lyricism and naturalism here. And, through the 1980's and 1990's, abstraction, collage and exuberant technical experiment. Photographers well known to blacks and whites are represented. (James Van der Zee, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Chester Higgins Jr., Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson). So, too, are many, like Robert H. McNeill, Monetta J. Sleet Jr. and Charles Harris, who spent most of their lives working for the black press. There is so much good work from so many.

And in the end ''Reflections in Black'' turns out to include whites, too. Nineteenth-century black professionals often photographed nonblack subjects, from abolitionists to the obscure citizens whose pictures are in every in state historical society collection. Like their white counterparts, these photographers, occasionally women, traveled, set up studios, advertised and won medals at state fairs.

When James Presley Ball moved to Richmond, Va., in 1846, an observer wrote: ''The Virginians rushed in crowds to his room; all classes, white and black, bound and free sought to have their lineaments stamped by the artist who painted with the Sun's rays.'' Augustus Washington began his career in Hartford, and before it ended he had photographed the fierce John Brown and had traveled to Liberia, photographing the black families who had emigrated there from the United States.

Ms. Willis includes a 1946 photograph of an anti-lynching march: the sign-carrying women all wear hats and some wear white gloves, too. And there is one picture, taken by James Presley Ball, of a black man hanged in Helena, Mont., in 1896. In Ball's first picture of him, the man is wearing a suit with a white flower in his lapel and smartly folded pocket handkerchief. In the second picture, he is hanging from a rope, a hood over his head, flanked (since the hanging was legal) by a sheriff and a minister.

He was an ex-slave named William Biggerstaff and in Ball's last photo, he lies in a white-lined coffin, mustache combed, wedding ring in view.

All varieties of the human are in this book. They don't always defeat cruelty and bigotry but they do at last make them bear the weight of those terrible words ''inhuman'' and ''subhuman.''

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:

You may print this article now, or save it on your computer for future reference. Instructions for saving this article on your computer are also available.

horizontal line
What's New Page to home page e-mail  Page Top