Out of Time: A Contemporary View
August 30, 2006–April 9, 2007
On the occasion of an exhibition of African Americans in early photography, Weems was invited by The J. Paul Getty Museum to comb through their photography collection. She selected nineteenth- and twentieth- century photographs of black men and women, from the time they were forced into slavery in the United States to the present, then rephotographed the pictures, enlarged them, and toned them in red. Each photograph is framed under a sheet of glass inscribed with a text written by the artist, evoking the layers of prejudice imposed on the depicted men and women. Weems's work offers a contemporary reading of this historical group of images.
Carrie Mae Weems,
MoMA2000: Open Ends (1960-2000), September 28, 2000-March 4, 2001
I was trying to look at the history of photography and the way in which African Americans had been particularly depicted and inscribed through and in American photography. I used images that were preexisting, and my intervention was to re-inscribe them by making them all consistent, in terms of size and scale and format and adding the use of color so that, for instance, I used the color red to annunciate the image. I wanted to use oval or circular mats because I wanted to have that sense of looking through the photographic lens, which is a round surface.
The photographs were made for very, very different reasons originally—at least, most of them were. They were intended to undercut the humanity of Africans and of African Americans in particular. This way of looking at the African as subject says a great deal more about Anglo–American photographers than it does about the African subject. When we're looking at these images, we're looking at the ways in which Anglo-America, white America, saw itself in relationship to the black subject, so that in a way you're looking at a very interesting aspect of Anglo-American culture. When we turn to looking at black subjects, that idea is lost. So, I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.
I used this idea of "I saw you and you became" as a way of both speaking out of the image and to the subject of the image. For instance, I say, "You became an anthropological debate and a photographic subject." I'm trying to heighten a kind of critical awareness around the way in which these photographs were intended, and then of course, the way in which they are ultimately used by me—a strategy that I hope undercuts the original intention of the maker and then gives the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph.
In some ways I think, From Here I Saw What Happened is perhaps one of the more painful pieces that I've made. When I look at it, when I study it, I cry. It is a very sad piece, and, at the same time, of course, there's always hope that's located within sadness, as well. The hope that in the end our mutual humanity will be understood and embraced.