The photographer, whom I’d not heard of, was Eli Weinberg. He was apparently born in Latvia in 1908 and arrived in Cape Town in 1929, where he joined the Communist Party and became active in the trade-union movement. He was arrested, detained and subjected to a succession of banning orders. He died in Dar es Salaam in 1981. A life, then, of repeated displacement and exile, illuminated by the long-dreamed-of homeland of justice.
Hoping to find out more about the boy in the picture, I contacted the co-curator of the exhibition, Rory Bester. He was, he said, “90 percent sure it’s the photographer’s son. ... [Mark] often accompanied him while he was working ... both when he was a trade unionist and when he was a photographer.” A 2014 investigation by a South African news outlet, in which friends of the Weinberg family and fellow activists were asked if they could identify the boy, cast doubt on this score: Some were certain it was Mark; some didn’t recognize him. I checked back with Bester this summer, and he wrote that “no more information has come to light about E.W.’s son, except that nobody has contradicted the ‘belief’ that it is indeed his son.”
So, assuming Mark was there with his dad, why not put him to work and include him in the picture? In a sense, then, Weinberg could be said to have staged the picture, to have worked on its magic. But the protest was itself staged; it was not a spontaneous gathering. In an entirely benign way, the presence of the boy silently and subtly demonstrates a crack in the implacable armor of apartheid. The chubby innocent might grow into the narrator of J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” who declares that “if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian.”
Of all the people in the picture, the boy is the one who, by virtue of his youth, is most likely to still be around, to answer the questions raised by his presence. We want to hear his version of what happened. According to Bester, several people in photographs in the show came by to identify themselves and to be rephotographed in front of the old pictures. This has been done in other situations, by other people photographed in the midst of historical events. It’s often illuminating, partly because of the way people’s memories are contradicted, reinforced or even created by the existence of a photograph.
Consider, for example, a picture that is in some ways the mirror image of this one, taken less than a year later, by Will Counts in Little Rock, Ark. Instead of a solitary white boy surrounded by crowds of peaceful, welcoming black people, there is a solitary black girl surrounded by a baying mob of whites. The black girl is Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine African-American students who were supposed to be entering Little Rock Central High School together at the start of desegregation. At the last moment, she found herself walking alone, being abused by the crowd. One snarling white face, that of 15-year-old Hazel Bryan, became the symbol of intransigent racial bigotry.
Bryan herself, though, was not so intransigent. Some people can spend their lives living up to an ideal; Bryan came to feel that in some ways, she spent her life living down the incident caught on film that day. In 1963 she looked up Eckford’s number in the phone book and rang to apologize. The conversation was brief, Eckford accepted her apology and got on with her life. In 1997, to mark the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of the school, the women met in person and were again photographed by Counts, this time as symbols of racial healing and togetherness. They became friends, spoke in public about the need for harmony and — the apotheosis! — appeared on “Oprah” together.
Except that this wasn’t quite the end. There were lingering resentments, doubts on Eckford’s side about Bryan’s motives. Perhaps she was just trying to make herself feel better. So their relationship ended as it had begun, with estrangement. And, in a way, Counts’s original picture refuses the possibility of redemption. If it contains a suggestion of the future, it is in the way that the future will insist on remembering Eckford and Bryan. The people in the picture are stuck in the amber of history: a history the photograph played its part in creating.
Let’s go back to that day in December 1956 in Johannesburg, to other photographs of the same scene. One of them, taken by an unidentified photographer from a different angle, shows a musician conducting the crowd in songs and hymns. In the background, slightly blurry, we recognize many of the same faces from the previous picture, including the ladies on either side of the boy. Frustratingly, the conductor’s raised arm is exactly where the boy’s face would be, but if we look down, there is no sign of his bare legs and sandals. Which made me realize something that hadn’t quite registered about the earlier photograph: He’s dressed for completely different weather than almost everyone else. The people around him are dressed as if for a rainy, cold day and a long stay. In the second picture, they are still standing by their leaders, but he is nowhere to be seen. He has disappeared from history.
I kept wondering how he came to regard this picture later in life. Presumably it was a source of pride and happiness in the same way that the image from Little Rock became, for Bryan, a source of shame. This was all just speculation, rendered pointless by the two things I did find out about Mark. First, it seems that he died in 1965 at 24, so his dad was the one left to look back with love and pride at the vision of belonging that he had witnessed and created. Second, that as a result of a car accident, Mark had been deaf since he was a young child. So there is isolation in the midst of solidarity. These facts change nothing about the photograph, but they add to its mystery. A picture of history — a moment in history — and of fate, it is documentary evidence of the unknowable.Continue reading the main story
DeCarava, on the other hand, insisted on finding a way into the inner life of his scenes. He worked without assistants and did his own developing, and almost all his work bore the mark of his idiosyncrasies. The chiaroscuro effects came from technical choices: a combination of underexposure, darkroom virtuosity and occasionally printing on soft paper. And yet there’s also a sense that he gave the pictures what they wanted, instead of imposing an agenda on them. In “Mississippi Freedom Marcher,” for example, even the whites of the shirts have been pulled down, into a range of soft, dreamy grays, so that the tonalities of the photograph agree with the young woman’s strong, quiet expression. This exploration of the possibilities of dark gray would be interesting in any photographer, but DeCarava did it time and again specifically as a photographer of black skin. Instead of trying to brighten blackness, he went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.
This confidence in “playing in the dark” (to borrow a phrase of Toni Morrison’s) intensified the emotional content of DeCarava’s pictures. The viewer’s eye might at first protest, seeking more conventional contrasts, wanting more obvious lighting. But, gradually, there comes an acceptance of the photograph and its subtle implications: that there’s more there than we might think at first glance, but also that when we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.
Thinking about DeCarava’s work in this way reminds me of the philosopher Édouard Glissant, who was born in Martinique, educated at the Sorbonne and profoundly involved in anticolonial movements of the ’50s and ’60s. One of Glissant’s main projects was an exploration of the word “opacity.” Glissant defined it as a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, a right to be misunderstood if need be. The argument was rooted in linguistic considerations: It was a stance against certain expectations of transparency embedded in the French language. Glissant sought to defend the opacity, obscurity and inscrutability of Caribbean blacks and other marginalized peoples. External pressures insisted on everything being illuminated, simplified and explained. Glissant’s response: No. And this gentle refusal, this suggestion that there is another way, a deeper way, holds true for DeCarava, too.
DeCarava’s thoughtfulness and grace influenced a whole generation of black photographers, though few of them went on to work as consistently in the shadows as he did. But when I see luxuriantly crepuscular images like Eli Reed’s photograph of the Boys’ Choir of Tallahassee (2004), or those in Carrie Mae Weems’s “Kitchen Table Series” (1990), I see them as extensions of the DeCarava line. One of the most gifted cinematographers currently at work, Bradford Young, seems to have inherited DeCarava’s approach even more directly. Young shot Dee Rees’s “Pariah” (2011) and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City” (2012) and “Mother of George” (2013), as well as Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014). He works in color, and with moving rather than still images, but his visual language is cognate with DeCarava’s: Both are keeping faith with the power of shadows.
The leading actors in the films Young has shot are not only black but also tend to be dark-skinned: Danai Gurira as Adenike in “Mother of George,” for instance, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., in “Selma.” Under Young’s lenses, they become darker yet and serve as the brooding centers of these overwhelmingly beautiful films. Black skin, full of unexpected gradations of blue, purple or ocher, set a tone for the narrative: Adenike lost in thought on her wedding day, King on an evening telephone call to his wife or in discussion in a jail cell with other civil rights leaders. In a larger culture that tends to value black people for their abilities to jump, dance or otherwise entertain, these moments of inwardness open up a different space of encounter.
These images pose a challenge to another bias in mainstream culture: that to make something darker is to make it more dubious. There have been instances when a black face was darkened on the cover of a magazine or in a political ad to cast a literal pall of suspicion over it, just as there have been times when a black face was lightened after a photo shoot with the apparent goal of making it more appealing. What could a response to this form of contempt look like? One answer is in Young’s films, in which an intensified darkness makes the actors seem more private, more self-contained and at the same time more dramatic. In “Selma,” the effect is strengthened by the many scenes in which King and the other protagonists are filmed from behind or turned away from us. We are tuned into the eloquence of shoulders, and we hear what the hint of a profile or the fragment of a silhouette has to say.
I think of another photograph by Roy DeCarava that is similar to “Mississippi Freedom Marcher,” but this other photograph, “Five Men, 1964,” has quite a different mood. We see one man, on the left, who faces forward and takes up almost half the picture plane. His face is sober and tense, his expression that of someone whose mind is elsewhere. Behind him is a man in glasses. This second man’s face is in three-quarter profile and almost wholly visible except for where the first man’s shoulder covers his chin and jawline. Behind these are two others, whose faces are more than half concealed by the men in front of them. And finally there’s a small segment of a head at the bottom right of the photograph. The men’s varying heights could mean they are standing on steps. The heads are close together, and none seem to look in the same direction: The effect is like a sheet of studies made by a Renaissance master. In an interview DeCarava gave in 1990 in the magazine Callaloo, he said of this picture: “This moment occurred during a memorial service for the children killed in a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1964. The photograph shows men coming out of the service at a church in Harlem.” He went on to say that the “men were coming out of the church with faces so serious and so intense that I responded, and the image was made.”
The adjectives that trail the work of DeCarava and Young as well as the philosophy of Glissant — opaque, dark, shadowed, obscure — are metaphorical when we apply them to language. But in photography, they are literal, and only after they are seen as physical facts do they become metaphorical again, visual stories about the hard-won, worth-keeping reticence of black life itself. These pictures make a case for how indirect images guarantee our sense of the human. It is as if the world, in its careless way, had been saying, “You people are simply too dark,” and these artists, intent on obliterating this absurd way of thinking, had quietly responded, “But you have no idea how dark we yet may be, nor what that darkness may contain.”
Correction: March 15, 2015
An article on Feb. 22 about the photographer Roy DeCarava described one of his pictures incorrectly. It features a young woman in a white graduation dress, not a woman in a bridal gown.