A reader has brought to my attention a recent article in the New York Times that really follows up on our discussion of responsibility in events and photography. This article by Maurice Berger, in the blog “Lens,” entitled “Lynchings in the West, Erased From History and Photos” features the work of photographer Ken Gonzales-Day in particular his “Erased Lynching Series.” The subject fits in well with our discussion on photography ethics and on the effect of the gruesome on the observer.
Gonzales-Day has pursued mob violence and lynchings that occured in California during the nineteen and early twentieth centuries. Unlike the Jim Crow lynchings of African Americans in the South, which were conducted under a veil of anonymity, lynchings in California were perpetrated predominantly against Mexicans, native AMericans, and Asians and were glorified in the name of “frontier justice.” Gonzales-Day has done two things: first he has taken contemporary postcards and photographs of these infamous events and removed the victims; second he has revisited these sites and rephotographed them.
The victimless images have a profound effect. While in the originals, the eye is invariably drawn and held riveted to the unfortunate victim, here you look instead into the sometimes smiling, sometimes blank faces of the mob of executioners. And there is always something obviously missing that creates a sense of ambiguity. Berger discusses the views of Belgian critic and curator Thierry de Duve: ” pictures of atrocities, shocking and disquieting as they may be, result in a ‘vanishing of the present tense.’ Distilling a complex, morally troubling event into an instant, they suspend viewers in a limbo in which they are inevitably ‘too early to witness the uncoiling of the tragedy’ and ‘too late, in real life,’ to do anything to prevent it.” For Mr. de Duve, this renders pictures of bloodshed particularly disconcerting — almost unbearably — by intensifying our sense of helplessness before history.”
I think that the same may be said of the “subway tragedy” discussed in my blog of yesterday. Vison is our dominant sense. As a result, the photographic image can affect us profoundly. Photographs can be strong medicine. On the one hand they may fill us forever with profound sublimity. One the other hand they may haunt us forever with gruesome reality.