Carrie Mae Weems
Arguably one of the most influential contemporary artists, Carrie Mae Weems is well-known for exploring social concepts such as “family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power” (Weems). In her work From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, Weems acquired a series of daguerreotypes of slaves taken in the 1850s from Harvard University and republished the pictures with additive features. The new features, including narrative texts and circular matte, embody her and the overall African American perspective. The portraits of the slaves were originally taken by anthropologist Louis Agassiz. His motive was to collect evidence to validate the belief of physical inferiority of African Americans as part of an anthropological study. Through the series, Weems overturns the prints that were formerly captured to support claims of white superiority and uses them to her advantage to portray the problematic role of photographs in shaping and supporting racism, stereotyping, and social injustice.
The collective work was first published in 1995 and has been redistributed to museums all over the world such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Center of Contemporary Art in Seville, Spain. Since then, her work has been widely recognized by African American intellectuals, with both praise and opprobrium. Even though her work may be controversial, all can agree that the artwork is has had a significant impact on the modern African American artistry and the public opinion of the manipulative usage of photography to convey racial bias against black people.
Historical and Cultural Context
Carrie Mae Weems is a renowned, versatile artist who works with text, audio, digital images, and other works with over thirty years of experience. She is best known for her photography; her unconventional depictions distinguish her from other photographers.
Weems published her first series of photographs as a reaction to a 1965 government-issued Moynihan report that cited family instability as the cause of the deterioration of African-American life. Then, she tackled history of slavery through studio photos of models enacting stereotypes, and mug-shot portraits of black children in 1989-90 (Weems). The aforementioned works ultimately led and helped shape her identity when she published From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. Ultimately, Weems has “charted the black experience in photographs” (Cotter 2) through her published pictures.
In regard to the historical context of From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, the original pictures were taken by Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist, who traveled through the antebellum South to capture the portraits of slaves as part of an anthropological study. His intention was to prove the theory of racial inferiority of African Americans by classifying the physical traits of the slave population to “document their supposedly subhuman anatomy” (Raymond 2). This explicit indication of racial prejudice conveys the prevalence of such opinions in society during the 1850s. Weems took these daguerreotypes from an archive from the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in 1995 and reprinted the pictures with a red filter and accompanying text that brings perspective of the slaves.”
By observing the similarities across photographs in the past and in the media today, one should be able to spot the obvious pattern across all platforms. For example, the discrepancy between the depictions of black criminals versus white criminals in today’s news and social media outlets is undoubtedly biased.
One of the many infamous examples include when the Iowa newspaper The Gazette posted two different articles relating to burglary back to back, where the only difference was the race of the suspect (Siede 1). The white suspect’s article posted with his smiling yearbook picture whereas the African American man was presented with a grim mugshot. Like the articles written by The Gazette, Louis Agassiz purposely captured the portraits of slaves to shape the black stereotypes that existed and to prove racial inferiority of African Americans. The media’s power to subtly shape the perception of crimes through photographs today can be traced back to problematic usage of photos to capture racial prejudice in the past.
Themes and Style
Weems uses inscribed texts to give voice to the African Americans who were historically silent. By proclaiming “you became a scientific profile” in the very beginning, she starts off the work with a hard-to-swallow, but necessary fact.
She continues to bombard the audience with harsh descriptions such as “an anthropological debate, a photographic subject, the spitting image of evil” (Weems). Through her words, the author pinpoints the dehumanizing labels and roles given to the slaves by the white supremacist society. By adding personifying phrases to the photos, the work provides insight and gives the voice of the African American population that was missing in the original prints. The word “you” adds a personal touch to the artwork. The author treats the slaves as familiar people, as friends and family, rather than strangers which evokes pathos in the viewers in the form of anger and disbelief of the mistreatment of the slaves. Weems establishes a strong connection between the slaves of the past and the African American people of the post-slavery era by critiquing the various methods the media and society portray blacks and the consequences of the aforementioned actions.
In addition, the circular matte surrounding the portraits suggests the lens of a camera, which virtually places the audience in the perspective of the photographer. “Instead of just looking at a photo of someone, the viewer is placed into the first-person viewpoint of the photo subject, as if they are watching history through this lens and piece” (Carpio 27). Weems puts the viewers of the art in the shoes of someone in the 1800s which allows for an enhanced understanding appreciation of the historical context. Essentially, Carrie Mae Weems forces the audiences to confront the brutal past that the subjects of the photographs have been classified and victimized by a racist culture.
The prominent feminine figures suggests Weems’ experimentation of questioning the implied sexuality and gender stigmas throughout the discourse of slavery. As highlighted in the dissertation by Glenda Carpio, she brings back nineteenth century daguerreotypes of African Americans from the slavery era and alters them to capture the way the body was posed and exposed to the camera and classified to a certain ideology, in this case the theory of the physical inferiority of African Americans. By “inscribing polemical yet poetic statements upon the surfaces of her images,” she brings in the perspective of the “fetishization of race in America” (Carpio 27). Overall, Weems’ images elicit several questions in the audience, concerning the “cultural, economic, and philosophical structures that made slavery flourish as a social system” (Carpio 27).
The avant-garde style Weems incorporates into From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried is able to seize the viewers’ attention and communicate an important and necessary message that other artists tend to avoid because it is difficult and awkward to discuss. Weems’ alteration of the photographs, by “tinting, cropping, framing, and inscribing with verbal text,” (Raymond 5) conveys the problematic documentation by the anthropologist Louis Agassiz. She gives “a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice” (Raymond 6), and offers a unique and personal narrative from an African American perspective. Through the series, Weems nullifies the prints that were captured to prove white supremacy by using them to her advantage to portray the problematic role of photographs in shaping racial stereotypes.
Since the publication, the work has drawn worldwide attention from critics. However, there are generally two standpoints on the artwork. Scholars either praise her role in representing the problematical portrayal of blacks in photographs in an unconventional way or criticize her violation of ethics by reprinting the disturbing images of the dead. In this section, the two opposite sides of the spectrum will be discussed to hear out and analyze both sides of the story.
In a dissertation by William Mosby, he claims that Weems breaks the norms of literature by utilizing complex methods to represent photography’s influence slaves. The narrative use of words illustrates a “passage of time” that act as contact points for the audience to dive into a “historical trajectory” (Mosby 7). Weems offers a perspective from the slaves, putting the audience in the shoes of many stories which allows “the present to become involved, and the future to be altered” (Mosby 7). Ultimately, he conveys that this piece illustrates the powerful, unconventional use of visual text to retell a historically significant event that is often swept under the rug.
In contrast, shedding light on the legality of the work, Harvard University initially tried to sue Weems for the illegal distribution of the institution’s pictures. Carrie Mae Weems chose to reprint these pictures despite the legal controversy around the redistribution, and eventually, the collection was left as it is. However, some critics still argue that what Weems did was a form of plagiarism and is morally wrong.
In addition to the legal issues, many scholars oppose the artwork because of the violations of ethics and morality. At a conference at Duke University, Cherise Smith argued that by digging up the photos from the past and forcing the subjects to resurface violates ethics. Weems’ action of re-exposing the humiliating photographs lets the victims in the photos to be re-victimized. She dishonored the moral rights of the dead, which is a more complex measure that must be approached with caution and with a clear and profound purpose. Critics reason that Weems’ act was needless and her work did not have a profound impact compared to the consequences that were taken to create her work.
The complaints of Smith and other critics alike puts “Weems responsible for the production of ghosts: as if, vampire-like, Weems drew the lifeblood of her art from wounded innocents, and in so doing made them revenants, gave them an unhallowed, unasked-for second life” (Raymond 6). Essentially, she forces the public to witness the brutal portraits that could have been part of the past.
Although some may have differing opinions on the ethical violations, all can agree that she is “one of the most honored American artists of her generation. Weems asks inconvenient questions and comes up with unwelcome answers. She posed an important question that no other had asked before. For that alone, no contemporary artist’s work is more important.” (Weems). Even through the risks and criticism, Weems still reprinted the pictures to shed light on the importance of photographs in shaping the past and even today’s perception of black people.
Carpio, Glenda Rossana. “Critical memory in the fictions of slavery.” University of California, Berkeley, Spring, 2002.
Cotter, Holland. “Carrie Mae Weems Charts the Black Experience in Photographs.” The New York Times, 23 Jan. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/arts/design/carrie-mae-weems-charts-the-black-experience-in-photographs.html.
Mosby, W. Michael. “Carrie Mae Weems and the Construction of Visual Text.” The University of Memphis, 2016. Georgia Tech, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1886474763?accountid=11107.
Raymond, C. “The Crucible of Witnessing: Projects of Identity in Carrie Mae Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, vol. 13 no. 1, 2015, pp. 26-52. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/592338.
Siede, Caroline. “Arrested for same crime, in newspaper white suspects get yearbook photos, black suspects get mugshots.” Boing Boing, 31 Mar. 2015, boingboing.net/2015/03/31/arrested-for-same-crime-in-ne.html.
Weems, Carrie Mae. “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” Carrie Mae Weems, 1995-1996, carriemaeweems.net/galleries/from-here.html.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New York, Grove Press, 1967.
Fleetwood, Nicole R. On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination. DGO – Digital original ed., Rutgers University Press, 2015. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15sk7t3.
Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteeth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” In Race: Writing, and Difference, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Singerman, Howard. Art History, after Sherrie Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1986.
African American Visual Art, Carrie Mae Weems, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, photographs, toned prints, Criminalization of African Americans, Museum of Modern Art