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Nov 08, 2009

When Cotton Was King


Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments


Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

Natural disasters seem to come and go.  Tsunami’s, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes wreak unimaginable damage, literally erasing neighborhoods—and even cities—within the blink of an eye.  One minute there is a thriving or peaceful community.  The next, nothing but rubble.  It is hard to fathom, particularly if it is not literally in our own backyard, even as the power of photography manages to reduce the distance between “here” and “there,” and in the process activates the human empathy needed to lend a helping hand across all manner of social, political, economic, and geographical borders.  And yet there is something troubling about such images for even as they give presence to the immediacy of such tragedies there is a sense in which they fragment each event, inviting us to treat them as an isolated and individual events effecting these people—always them, never us—here and now.

I thought about this some this past week as I perused the many photographs of the fury unleashed by Hurricane Sandy on places like the Jersey Shore, New York City’s east side Battery, and  Breezy Point on Long Island.  And in the process I found myself thinking about the natural tragedies that don’t seem to cull such easy images of nature’s fury and destruction.

The photograph above is from Hay Springs, Nevada.  It was taken just three months ago and what it shows is one of the many dried up river beds that are becoming more and more prevalent in the plain states and in the upper Midwest as a result of recent and increasingly intense droughts.  The image is hardly as dramatic as the scenes we see in the wake of hurricanes and tornadoes, in large measure because here nature’s violence is slower and more exacting, creeping and gradual, rather than bold and arrogant.  And the damage itself is harder to see, its human effects harder to imagine.  The water has disappeared, and the river bed is cracked, but the grass on the other side, however far away, remains green (for now) and the cattle continue to have space to roam (for the time being).  But if you look closely enough to the horizon—and the point is that you have to look closely to see it—you will notice that the plains are more brown than green and it is not hard to imagine that before long they too will suffer the same fate as the river bed.  And where then will the cattle go?

The point, of course, is not to ignore the dramatic effects of the natural disasters that grab our attention and compassion for a moment in time, only to be forgotten as an isolated event, but to recognize that such events are connected and symptomatic  of a larger problem, one that is gradual and more enduring, and which we can see—but only if we look closely—as unfolding slowly and  in real time.

Photo Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Public Sphere: America A Changing Place


Icon Dismembered!

You might say they loved till their dying breath.  And left everyone else to pick up the pieces.

“No, Nancy, no, we can’t do this any more–I, I’m just a stump of a man!”  “That’s OK, Biff, I’m not the woman I once was, but I’ll love you with everything I’ve got.”

Roy Lichtenstein it’s not, but it is the 25 foot tall statue commemorating the iconic photograph of the “Times Square Kiss” taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt.  The statue is being moved from the San Diego waterfront to somewhere in New Jersey.  Not to worry, however, as the LA Times has reported that $1,000,000 was raised in eight weeks to purchase a replacement.  So one version of the iconic image is being dismembered, but only temporarily, and the result will be two versions instead of none.  Iconic reproduction continues even when it appears that the image is being dismantled.

But can you really dismember an iconic image?  Doesn’t an icon have a unique singularity, such that you always get the whole instead of a part?  Isn’t it an icon because it has resisted the forces of fragmentation and dispersion that are constantly at work in the media environment?  Well, actually, sometimes icons are broken up into their parts, whether as citations of the whole work or for other reasons as well.  It’s only because the statue is gargantuan, urethane, and imitating human bodily form that this dismemberment is unsettling enough to merit a news photograph.

What is interesting, however, is that the piece in the foreground contains all the features that distinguish this particular icon.  Compare it with the two pieces in the background (one is largely obscured) and you’ll see what I mean: the kiss itself, their postures, and their hands tell most of the story.  The rest is all uniform–which, like their actual uniforms, provides the background against with the figural distinction occurs.  Once again, by breaking up the image, the image is reconstituted anew.

Or not.  For there is another sense in which the image is being dismembered or, more precisely, disremembered.  The caption at the Washington Post slide show yesterday included this description: “The statue of two Navy sweethearts kissing.”  Much as I’d like to think otherwise about the major paper in Washington DC–but why am I not surprised?–it seems that the editor knew nothing about the original photograph.  The sailor and nurse in that photo were not sweethearts, but rather completely anonymous to one another, and she was not in the Navy.  Instead of historical veracity, the statue has been recontextualized in terms of its location beside the USS Midway museum in San Diego.

Many spectators along the waterfront may have seen it much the same way, and so the icon had already been dismembered, taken out of context, made a part of another time and place.  A similar transformation applies to the title”Unconditional Surrender,” which had been supplied by the sculptor, Seward Johnson, and also referenced by the Post.  While it could still refer to the surrender of Japan in August 1945, for many today it will refer only to a fantasy of romantic love.  This wholly privatized meaning can get by even though the hands of both the sailor and the nurse, faithfully reproduced to adhere to the iconic template, make it pretty clear that restraint was still somewhat the order of the day.  But that was then.

Today, iconic images are as solid as ever, which is to say: more than most, but less than you might think.

Photograph by Gregory Bull/Associated Press.


The American Gulag

The prison system in the United States gives a hard meaning to the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Just as the prison keeps its inmates out of public view, the buildings themselves are placed well off the main roads in what are often economic dead zones. Few ever go by the place, and no one ever needs to go inside unless you work there, are making a delivery, or want to visit with an inmate. And most of those people won’t be allowed to see anything like this:

This stunning photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein shows a prisoner’s hands being held out in order to be handcuffed before he is taken to a shower. I find the image deeply disturbing–as if it were something I would see because I was already insane, looking down the asylum hallway and still accosted by hideous visions distending reality. The hands lie there as if the body is a corpse, worse, as dismembered body parts. The sickly green color scheme, hard surfaces, and sharp, metallic fixtures are a nightmare of institutional authority gone horribly perverse. The red stains on the wall and the white stains on the linoleum floor look like traces of bodily fluids, and the yellow lines suggest a steady traffic in gurneys and terror always rationalized by official procedures.

The image doesn’t tell only one story, however. Those hands may be murderous. Tattoos are commonplace today, but in this tableau the heavily tattooed arm seems demonic, as if the outer sign of snakes writhing within. There seems to be no place for innocence in this world, which can only provide further justification for rough justice, inhumane conditions, and policies that do more to perpetuate violent crime than prevent it.

This marked, abject body waiting to be shackled is a fitting reminder of the cesspool at the end of America’s criminal justice system. (“Criminal justice system”–a phrase in which each term twists the others.) The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world; only Russia is even close, and the European states are far, far below. The causes include both excessive income inequality and the disintegration of the family. Given that both conservative and liberal arguments are proved correct, you might think that a strong bi-partisan effort could be made to keep millions of Americans out of prison. Think again, for why would anyone bother to fix something they never see?

This image and others like it can be seen in the exhibition “Behind Bars: Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein” through January 4, 2009 at fovea in Beacon, New York. Lichtenstein’s portfolio includes the eloquent book Never Coming Home, which documents the funerals of eight soldiers killed in the Iraq war. You can see one of those heart-rending images in an earlier post at this blog on Shared Suffering in Iraq and America.


Shared Suffering in Iraq and America

In November, 2000, President Clinton traveled to Hanoi and stated in a speech there that “This shared suffering has given our countries a relationship unlike any other.” The statement need not be literally true to be an achievement. To the extent that it became true that day, it was something that reflected not only the war but also the healing and growing together that had ensued in the followed decades. Let us hope that some day the same can be said for the US and Iraq. It surely would take time, but the reason for doing so is already all evident in photojournalism’s coverage of this war.

Two examples brought this thought to mind. One was the post at BAGnewsNotes yesterday about a new book by photographer Andrew Lichtenstein entitled Never Coming Home. Lichtenstein chronicles eight of the funerals occurring across America for those killed in the war. You can see some of these heartrending images in a photo essay at Alternet. One of a father collapsing in grief on someone’s shoulder is undoubtedly a portrait of suffering:



And for every loved one lost here, there are many more destroyed over there. This image from yesterday’s New York Times is one example of how grief knows no boundaries:


The caption of this page 10 story says that “An Iraqi woman wept next to her husband’s body yesterday in Baquba. Violent civilian deaths in Iraq declined last month.” That mixed message is typical of Times coverage of late (some would say, all the time). We can be certain, however, that the statistical decline means little to this woman. What remains to be seen is whether we can make an emotional connection across the barriers of war, geography, and culture.

Unfortunately, while the visual image may be the best means to establish empathy on the scale required, the archive presents its own obstacles to emotional understanding. While the photographs of American grief are now available in an elegiac photo essay and a beautiful book, those of Iraqi parents are not getting quite the same packaging. This photo appeared as a black and white image in the print edition, and then as a thumbnail image online. I was grateful that it was there, but the thumbnail sizing seems almost obscene, as if a deliberate strategy to minimize the depth of her loss. And while the American dead are respectfully interred in closed caskets, her husband’s body is laid out as if on a slab at the city morgue or as a cadaver suitable for an anatomy class. And instead of seeing the father’s face contorted in grief, hers is obscured by a handkerchief. Instead of seeing an individual, we see an anonymous figure draped in the burqa that signals, to the Western gaze, the less than full personhood of those confined within traditional cultures. The only means of communication are her hands. A message may be there, but we see only the gesture of loss, experienced by a social type, the Iraqi woman. That is a long way from sharing suffering.

And yet she does touch me. There is so little left in that room, and the light coming in like a breeze flowing through the window hints at a transfiguration, as if his spirit has already ascended. That may be, but she stands there like a pillar of grief. If only she had a shoulder to cry on. One of ours, perhaps.

Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein; Ali Mohammed/European Pressphoto Agency.