The Witness

Representing Race: Lenses for Interpretation

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt

In the first post of this series, we explored the important role that images have played in shaping both our contemporary discourse around race and the very notion of race itself.

Clearly, then, we should think through how we interpret and use such representations. But because images are made by culture-bound humans, their use and impact can shift over time. Thus, there are multiple lenses through which we can interpret and evaluate images. Rather than depending on a knee-jerk reaction, we can learn to engage with images in ways that allow for productive complexity.

“The Scourged Back”

Purchase, with funds provided by the ICP Acquisitions Committee, 2003 Entered into the Daniel Cowin Collection

A photograph from the nineteenth century – perhaps one of the most famous abolitionist images – offers a useful example for consideration.

In 1863, the itinerant photographer William McPherson and his partner Oliver took a photograph of a runaway slave, later called “Gordon,” who had recently taken refuge at a Union camp in Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River. The resulting image, which came to be known as The Scourged Back is familiar to most Americans, and it is precisely its ubiquity that makes it necessary for us to look again, to look more closely, and to look through a variety of lenses.

Lens #1: As an Image

The first way that we might come to an image like this is to seek to understand its internal logic. That is, how does the image make meaning visually? We see a seated male figure from behind, his back slightly hunched and his head turned to the left in profile with his left arm bent and planted on his hip. He is shirtless and noticeably thin: his shoulder blades, elbow, and face form sharp angles. Our attention is immediately drawn to a network of scars across his back: a web of raised, thick welts that mass in the middle of his back. Indeed, it is the scars, and not the man, that are the main subject of the image.

The photographer draws our attention to these scars in several ways. First, the man’s pose is highly unusual. Typically seated portraits of that period would be shot in a three-quarter pose, with the subject turned towards the camera.

Here, McPherson inverts the pose and photographs Gordon without a shirt. Gordon’s face is in profile, which prevents us from clearly seeing his features or accessing a sense of emotion. Instead, we see him as a placid, immovable figure. Finally, the photographer takes Gordon’s portrait in front of a blank backdrop. Most portraits in the nineteenth century were shot in front of painted fabric backdrops.

By photographing Gordon in front of a sterile, empty background, McPherson removes any other visual texture, compelling us, again, to focus on the scars. The background also suggests a kind of objectivity. This is not a photograph taken to be flattering or aspirational. It seems indexical, a document of truth. Thus, even without much external knowledge, we can see how the image itself is set up to emphasize the man’s scars and his quiet forbearance.

Lens #2: As a Historical Document

But another way that we can understand this photograph is as a historical document. Is this an accurate depiction of an African-American man’s physical condition in 1863? We are perhaps especially inclined to believe this work because it is a photograph and we tend to trust their veracity.

When looking at a historical photograph like this one, it is important to remember that photographs can simultaneously tell the truth while distorting or concealing parts of the subject’s reality.

For example, the photograph tells us Gordon was a quiet, willing, and somber participant. But how can we know this for certain without his own, freely given words? The keloid scarring certainly appears real, but additional steps must be taken to verify the identity of the man and the source of the scars.

Can we confirm who took this photograph? Can we reliably determine the identity of the man in the image and the validity of the story disseminated about him? Historians have acknowledged how little verifiable information we have about the manufacture and subject of this famous photograph. These lingering questions of accuracy, however, have historically played second fiddle to the image’s efficacy.

Lens #3: As a History-Maker

Indeed, we might also consider the image in terms of its impact.

As Silkenat also points out, the photograph was published at a time when Northern public sentiment towards the War and the Emancipation Proclamation were at best ambivalent and at worst deeply unpopular. The photograph served a crucial role in rallying public sentiment in support of the Union cause. The image first circulated as a small photograph printed on inexpensive paper and mounted to cardboard. These were easy to reproduce and distribute, and indeed, several northern photographic studios reproduced McPherson and Oliver’s original image, buoyed in no small part by its mention in prominent abolitionist magazines.

A few months later, the photograph – along with three others – was converted to a woodblock print and used in Harper’s Bazaar’s article: A Typical Negro. The article described Gordon running away from his master in Louisiana, using onions to conceal his scent from tracking dogs, and appearing in rags at the Union Army camp.

The additional images offered a kind of self-serving “before and after” narrative, showing Gordon slouching and scarred as a runaway slave, then erect and proud in his Union uniform. The Scourged Back was thus an image made by white photographers for white audiences. It primarily served as “proof,” not of a black man’s humanity, but of whites’ role as savior.

Lens #4: As Part of Our Archive

Finally, how does this image continue to be used or referenced in our present context?

The image of Gordon’s scarred back shows up frequently in textbooks and educational websites as visual evidence of the cruelty of American chattel slavery. It serves as a backdrop in museum displays as a means of locating the viewer in a particular time. The photograph functions primarily as an illustration of slavery and even the antebellum South more generally. It has, in many ways, become what we might term an “icon,” a particular image that stands for a larger set of ideas, circumstances, experiences, and people.

But even beyond the reproduction of Gordon’s portrait, we would do well to consider more recent imagery that might reference this well-known image. For example, scenes in “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” of scarred or bloodied backs implicitly reference McPherson and Oliver’s 1863 image.

Perhaps less directly, we might also draw comparisons to some Civil Rights imagery from the 1960s, particularly images of protesters being knocked over by the spray of fire hoses or attacked by police dogs. As art historian Maurice Berger has pointed out, the trope of the black body in pain and in need of white intervention shows up repeatedly in the photographs of Civil Rights. According to Berger, the mainstream press’ tacit refusal to publish images of black activists fighting back shaped the narrative of white action being the necessary pillar of the Civil Rights movement.

What’s Next?

Thus, as we explored in the previous essay, The Scourged Back functions as part of an archive. It generates meaning in dialogue with other images and it continues to influence contemporary ideas about slavery, freedom, and blackness in America. We can certainly appreciate the important role that this image played in rallying Northern support for the war and Emancipation, but we can also recognize how the image of the docile, suffering black body may have actually fed a new kind of white supremacy and a severely truncated notion of “appropriate” blackness.

We can acknowledge the physical realities of slavery as well as the limitations of allowing an individual story to stand in for a whole. Looking at a single image through multiple lenses encourages us to ask questions about representation, rather than simply evaluating it as either a positive or negative image.

As we will see in our final essay, this approach also opens up opportunities to practice what we will call restorative looking.

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