LESSON FIVE: The Photographic Record
Photographs can offer glimpses into lives past, lost moments, and forgotten places. They help shape our understanding of personal identity, culture, and history. However, although the medium was heralded at its inception as an objective instrument of science, the histories told by photography are ultimately highly subjective, and since photographic history is selective, some stories are made more visible than others. In From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, a work composed of thirty-four individual altered photographs, Carrie Mae Weems reveals how photography has played a key role throughout history in shaping and supporting racism, stereotyping, and social injustice. Using appropriated images, Weems employs a number of strategies that disrupt the viewer’s experience and raise critical issues about how photography is used.
- Students will focus on a selection from a series of works by one artist.
- Students will consider how photography acts as an archive of personal and cultural history.
- Students will consider how Weems’s inclusion of text changes the experience of looking at and understanding photographs.
- Students will consider how Weems’s choice of color, composition, imagery, and text affects their interpretations.
- Ask your students to recount different moments in their lives that have been recorded with photographs. What were some of the reasons for recording and remembering these moments? Ask your students to consider what would happen if they were to show someone an album with all of these photographs. Would the album accurately reflect their life story? What types of moments were not photographed and are missing from this personal record?
- Ask students to consider their school’s photographic record. In general, when and why are photographs taken at school? Who decides when and how official photographs for events or yearbook pages are taken? What moments, events, and people go undocumented by photographs?
Carrie Mae Weems: You Became a Scientific Profile, chromogenic color print with sandblasted text on glass, one of thirty-four from the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 70.97.1 and .34: 1067×838 mm; 70.97.2-33: 676×578 mm, 1995 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Carrie Mae Weems: A Negroid Type, chromogenic color print with sandblasted text on glass, one of thirty-four from the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 70.97.1 and .34: 1067×838 mm; 70.97.2-33: 676×578 mm, 1995 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Carrie Mae Weems: An Anthropological Debate, chromogenic color print with sandblasted text on glass, one of thirty-four from the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 70.97.1 and .34: 1067×838 mm; 70.97.2-33: 676×578 mm, 1995 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Carrie Mae Weems: And a Photographic Subject, chromogenic color print with sandblasted text on glass, one of thirty-four from the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 70.97.1 and .34: 1067×838 mm; 70.97.2-33: 676×578 mm, 1995 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Show your students the four images of From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, then inform them that this is a selection of photographs from a much larger series. Inform them that to create these works Weems rephotographed and enlarged preexisting photographs and used a red filter when she copied them. She placed the prints in circular mats, sealed by a sheet of glass. Text was sandblasted into this final glass layer.
- Ask your students to look at the first photograph and describe the subject, Weems’s choice of color, and the composition. Invite a student to read the text "You became a scientific profile" aloud. What might the purpose of the photograph be and how does this relate to the text? Who may be implied by the pronoun you? Based on their observations, can your students determine the relationship between the subject and the photographer?
- Reading the text aloud, compare the next three images. What is meant by "negroid type"? Collectively define the word anthropology. Who is the "photographic subject"?
- Ask your students to compare the point of view, the composition, and the distance between the camera and the subject in all four images. What can your students infer about the original purposes of these photographs from seeing them as a group? Ask them how the text supports their interpretations.
- Ask your students to reconsider the voice in which the texts are written. Share the title of the work with your students. Given the title and the other texts, whom might the voice belong to, and whom does it address?
Weems began her career as an activist for the labor movement, followed by graduate work in fine art and, later, folklore. She selected the photographs in this series from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles. "When we’re looking at these images," Weems has said, "we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America, white America, saw itself in relationship to the black subject. I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice…. I used images that were preexisting, and my intervention was to reinscribe them by making them all consistent, in terms of size and scale and format and color." [Carrie Mae Weems, audio interview for MoMA 2000: Open Ends, The Museum of Modern Art and Acoustiguide, Inc., 2000.]
- As a class, collectively define the word intervention. How can an artistic action be considered an intervention?
- Ask your students to look at the series as a whole and discuss the significance of Weems’s decision to use a red filter.
- Draw your students’ attention back to the text that refers to the "photographic subject". What does this series reveal about historical uses of photography?
- Ask your students to reflect on the experience of reading the text and looking at the images. Why isn’t it possible to do both at the same time? How is the fact that the text has been sandblasted into the glass important?
Regarding her choice of text, Weems has said:
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 gives the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph. [Carrie Mae Weems, audio interview for MoMA 2000: Open Ends, The Museum of Modern Art and Acoustiguide, Inc., 2000.]
- Share Weems’s thoughts with your students. What might she have meant when she said that her text both speaks out of the image and to the subject of the image? How would the work change without the text?
- Ask students to share their thoughts about the overall intention of this work. Are there other ways in which it might be interpreted?
Send your students on a Web Quest to MoMA’s Online Collection, to see other works in this series. Ask them to consider the following questions: What other stereotypes does Weems address? How do other photographs in the series differ from the ones looked at and discussed in class? How do pose, dress, composition, viewpoint, and other photographic elements speak to the original purposes of the photographs? How does the tone or language shift with each photograph? If possible, listen with your class to the artist herself speaking about the ideas and experience behind making the work by following the Audio Archives link at the bottom of the Online Collection page for From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.
1. Collective Memory
Moved by the plight of nationless Kurds after the first Persian Gulf War, in 1990–91, photographer Susan Meiselas embarked on an unusual collaborative project to help create, restore, and return a photographic history to the Kurdish people. Her Web site Aka Kurdistan brings together photographs and documents from outsiders who encountered Kurds, such as colonial administrators, anthropologists, missionaries, journalists, and others. The site connects people, brings lost histories to light, and provides more information about Meiselas and the project. Send your students on a Web Quest to Aka Kurdistan to discover the Story Map. Ask them to follow three different stories from different periods of time. What types of photographs did they discover? Were the photographers identified and, if so, were they members of Kurdish communities or interested outsiders? How does the project reveal the way photography critically supports historical, national, ethnic, and personal identities?
2. A Tool of Measurement
The emergence of eugenics and forensics in the nineteenth century was directly tied to the development of photography. Many of these techniques for recording, documenting, and classifying people survive today. Ask your students to consider the different requirements of photo-identification (a school ID or a driver’s license, for example). How much of a person’s body is pictured? Generally speaking, what is the distance between the camera and the subject? How is a person’s behavior and pose dictated by the confines of the picture frame and by the purpose of the photograph? Ask your students to reflect on the reasons for all of these requirements. Then ask your students to research the origin of police mug shots. When was this type of photograph invented, and why? What does the word mug refer to? What is the standard format for mug shots?
3. Picture Book
Weems frequently includes text either in or alongside her photographs. She was first inspired to make art, in part, when she encountered The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 book by photographer Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes. When Hughes saw DeCarava’s intimate photographs of everyday people living in Harlem, New York City, he told his friend that words were needed to complete the pictures. The result is a story of life in Harlem as seen and told by a woman named Sister Mary Bradley. Ask your students to bring series of photographs, from home or elsewhere, that they find especially intriguing or inspirational. Ask them to work on a piece of creative writing to accompany one or more of the images they have chosen. As a class, create a book of the images and writing.
Grove Art Online: Suggested Reading
Below is a list of selected articles, which provide more information on the specific topics, discussed in this lesson.