Skip navigation
Help

Jim Crow

warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/vhosts/sayforward.com/subdomains/recorder/httpdocs/modules/taxonomy/taxonomy.pages.inc on line 33.

In the digital age, touching the work of established photographic masters can be sensitive business. Recently a Swedish artist named Sanna Dullaway applied her colorizing skills to several historical photographs that included Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of an on-the-spot execution of a Vietcong on the streets of Saigon. The debate surrounding these modified versions was whether the interpretation was an improvement that could somehow be more powerful emotionally—due to addition of a color palette and the ability to reach newer generations who disconnect when they see black and white images—or simple vandalism.

The artist Pavel Maria Smejkal in his Fatescapes series took his appropriation of historical images one step further by digitally removing the people from images such as Nick Ut’s photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack and the aforementioned Adams image. By leaving only the landscapes or streetscapes to play on our subconscious memory of historical places and events, he questions the limitations of a photograph’s accuracy at the representation of history.

Perhaps the most provocative example in terms of potential copyright infringement is when the artist Sherrie Levine re-photographed some of Walker Evans’ famous images from the 1930s Farm Security Administration project and presented them unaltered and with her name (the series was called After Walker Evans). Many viewers were outraged. Her act called into question many issues regarding a photograph’s author, copyright (Legally the FSA photographs are owned by the American public, which financed the project so there is no copyright infringement case that could be brought against Levine) and the portrayal of the poor. To some it was Art, but to others, it amounted to Blasphemy.

After Evans, Robert Frank may well be the most influential photographer the medium has seen. Frank’s book The Americans, published in the United States by Grove Press in 1959, was equally celebrated and reviled for its view of the U.S. and its citizenry. Today there is hardly a contemporary photographer who does not acknowledge that Frank accomplished greatness while photographing America for two years on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Americans hasn’t escaped its own touches with appropriation. In his newest bookwork Less Américains, London-based artist Mishka Henner takes his humorous title from the French Edition of Frank’s book Les Américains, published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris. By scanning and applying Photoshop to Frank’s images, Henner has proceeded to remove most of the vital subject matter from all 83 photographs—leaving only small details hovering around the frame like background props on an empty theater stage.

Of course, as the title suggests, Less Américains does away with the “Americans” in Frank’s photographs so all that remains, for example, of the Hoboken City Fathers are a line of hats and some political bunting hanging on a two-by-four. And what has been spared in the most famous of all New Orleans street car picture which so perfectly expressed the implied race hierarchy of Jim Crow in the United States? A few vague, unidentifiable shapes that sit within the frame like mismatched puzzle pieces. To quote Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction to the American edition of Frank’s book, “The humour, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures (!)” linger like a ghost in these secondary elements.

Less Américains includes an introduction by the artist Elisabeth Tonnard that takes the form of a concrete poetry version of Kerouac’s prose. Tonnard’s approach was to systematically white-out the individual letters A.M.E.R.I.C.A.I.N.S. from Kerouac’s text, leaving an incomprehensible soup of vowels and consonants. His “…basketa pittykats…” becomes the even more cryptic “…B k t p tty-k t …”

Well, what can we make of Henner’s reworking of this masterpiece? I think Kerouac said it best: “What poem this is, what poems can be written about this book of pictures some day by some young new writer high by candlelight bending over them describing every grey mysterious detail.”

Less Américains was published earlier this year.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

0
Your rating: None

Charles "Teenie" Harris

Photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris holding a camera while standing on the sidewalk.

Watch many photographers today working on digital SLRs and you’ll see them shoot, pull the camera down to peek in the digital screen to check the image, then repeat. This action has become known as chimping, and old salts will say that it betrays the photographer as an amateur, because back in the days of film, once you took a photo, that was what you had.

But in the days of film, especially in a controlled setting, photographers often made redundant shots to make sure they captured what they wanted. Not Charles “Teenie” Harris. A native of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the city’s cultural center of African-American life, Harris was a semi-pro athlete and a numbers runner before he bought his first camera in the 1930s. He opened a photography studio and specialized in glamour portraits, earning the nickname “One Shot” because he rarely made his subjects sit for a second take. Nearly 80 years later, a retrospective of the photographer’s work is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

“One Shot” Harris freelanced for the Pittsburgh Courier, chronicling the life of black neighborhoods throughout the city. In 1953, he closed his portrait studio, and for the next 20 years, he captured the late Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, photographing Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and dozens of others who shaped the late 20th century. But Harris is most remembered for his images of daily life—urban landscapes, social gatherings, musical performances and sports from boxing to Negro League baseball. He captured the vibrant times and slow death of the Crawford Grill, perhaps the most famous jazz club in the Hill District.

Harris made more than 80,000 images in his career, nearly 60,000 of which have been scanned and catalogued by the Carnegie Museum of Art. The Museum maintains a searchable archive online and a retrospective exhibition of Harris’ work will run until April 7, allowing visitors to see an era and a place captured one single shot at a time.

Teenie Harris, Photographer is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through April 7.

0
Your rating: None