These four photographs are part of the work From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, an elegiac sequence of images and text that addresses photography’s complicity in the reinforcement of racist ideas. In photographs African Americans have often been reduced to stereotypes and robbed of their individual identities. Weems’s work is not only a commentary on the representation of black people in millions of photographs, but it also responds to the status and perception of African Americans in the United States throughout history.
The artist rephotographed existing images: scientific, anthropological, documentary, and artistic photographs from the time of the American Civil War through the period of the civil rights movement. She used a red filter to diminish the pictures’ documentary authority and cropped each image to create a kind of telescopic view that emphasizes the viewer’s temporal distance from the subjects. Each picture is accompanied by text written by Weems, etched on a protective pane of glass. The series begins with a profile view of a dignified African woman looking to the right, as if toward the future, and it ends with the same image printed in reverse, so that she appears to look back over the gathered pictures—hence the title of the series. When the work is seen in its entirety, the short texts inscribed on the glass read like a bitter poem.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Carrie Mae Weems mined museum and university archives for photographs of slaves in the American South as well as other African Americans and Africans. She rephotographed and enlarged these appropriated images, printed them through colored filters—two blue images serve as bookends for a series printed in red—and framed them under sheets of glass etched with phrases such as, “you became a scientific profile” and “a negroid type.” Tracing a poetic narrative across a story of oppression, Weems said: “I was trying to heighten a kind of critical awareness around the way in which these photographs were intended” and give “the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph.”
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs online course, Coursera, 2016
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.
Gallery label from Out of Time: A Contemporary View, August 30, 2006–April 9, 2007.