Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Women and Photography

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CARRIE MAE WEEMS: FROM HERE I SAW WHAT HAPPENED

Carrie Mae Weems. Plate 1 from "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," 1995–1996; 33 toned prints. Courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery and the artist.

Nearly two more decades passed before other black female photographic artists gained notoriety in the mainstream art world. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of several talented women who merged conceptualism, performance, and photography to address race, gender, and class as political mechanisms. Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) was born in a black enclave of Portland, Oregon, which would later become part of her first major project, "Environmental Portraits (1978)," a series of documentary style portraits taken in Portland, New York City, Mexico, and Fiji. In 1979, Weems enrolled in the B.F.A. program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, where she continued to document black American life. In 1982 she enrolled in the M.F.A. program at University of California, San Diego, where she worked under advisor Fred Lonidier, a conceptual photographer, sociologist, and early pioneer in photo-based social practice art. Deeply influenced by Lonidier's work, Weems became more interested in cultural history and its resonance through the present day. She specifically examined the political aura of seemingly innocuous cultural artifacts, particularly racist jokes and memorabilia that target African Americans, as seen in her project "Ain't Jokin" (1987–1988). She was also interested in the imperceptible residue from traumatic historical events that occurred in contact zones between African Americans and European Americans, particularly sites constructed by racial tensions and unbalanced power dynamics that ultimately favored white males. Examples of this work include "Not Manet's Type" (1997), "The Hampton Project" (2000), and "The Jefferson Suite" (2001). Like Adrian Piper, Weems created photo-text works, though Weems' employment of text was narrative, expanding the story she started in images. In many cases, such as in "From Here I Saw What Happened and I cried" (1995–1996), the audience must read the text in order to "read" the images and understand the work. In this particular piece, Weems appropriated historical images, from 19th-century ethnographic photographs to 20th-century press images with racial tones, and paired them with texts that she wrote. The words read like painful journal entries from someone who has just realized that she is a survivor of daily psychological assaults that will continue as long as people fail to recognize de jure and de facto racism's relationship with the creation and unmitigated public circulation of racist imagery, such as the photographs in the piece. By combining these images with her heartfelt text, Weems assists viewers in making this connection and rethinking the history and role of the visual in the sociopolitical sphere.

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