Weems' 'Hampton Project' reframes photography's past

by Alex Rich | 2/4/03 6:00am

A photograph can immortalize the past. The simple click of a shutter can capture what might have otherwise been a fleeting and singular moment in time. Still, over the course of a century, contemporary perspectives on that past moment can change dramatically. As a result, the meaning entailed in a once-unambiguous photograph can instead prove anything but singular.

As a historical document, a photograph from 1899 may surely provide a concrete, visual basis from which to study turn-of-the-century America. At the same time, viewers who study the same photograph today necessarily bring their modern attitudes with them, and they may see an entirely different photograph than their counterparts more than 100 years ago did.

In its current exhibition, "Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project," the Hood Museum of Art pushes visitors to literally immerse themselves in historical photography. The exhibition aims to show how photographs can simultaneously present the world as it was and yet invite viewers to delve more deeply into that no-longer-extant world, re-envisioning it and looking at it from never-before-imagined points of view.

The Hood has purposefully paired "The Hampton Project" with its other current photography exhibition, "Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900-1901." Weems' "Hampton Project" focuses on the work of the pioneering woman photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Providing a tangible link between the two exhibitions, Johnston was also responsible for originally organizing the photographs by other women photographers that now constitute the "Ambassadors of Progress" exhibition. In Weems' exhibition, though, Johnston's own work, not that of her peers, becomes the central focus.

In "The Hampton Project," Weems, an internationally acclaimed visual artist and contemporary photographer, studies Johnston's early twentieth century photographs of social reform in action and reinterprets them from a modern perspective. From these photographs, Weems teases out the underlying negative repercussions from an assimilation project that, in its own time, performed under the veil of pure beneficence.

Weems re-visits Johnston's "Hampton Album of 1900," a collection of historic photographs that set out to extol the now-questionable virtues of what Director of the Hood Derrick Cartwright called "enlightened education." John-ston's commissioned photographs record the efforts of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (today's Hampton University) to "educate" African-American children and dispossessed Native Americans.

Although Weems reconsiders the history imbued in these photographs, they had once sought to elucidate the Institute's didactic mission to "enlighten." They showed training sessions in American history, in work skills and even in music class.

Whereas Johnston's photographs were meant to capture the successful reforms of the Hampton Institute, Weems revisits Johnston's images from the critical standpoint of a modern-day African-American woman. Invited by Williams College to study the album 100 years later, Weems turns Johnston's original intention for her photographs on its head. Weems cannot see these images as celebratory of the Institute's efforts, but rather as jarring historical documents of the legacies of slavery, assimilation and loss of individual identity.

"Weems is taking Johnston's photos in a direction Johnston would not have expected," Cartwright said.

Although Johnston's photographs are displayed in their original form in the exhibition, Johnston also appends her own new takes on the images. In approaching "The Hampton Album" from her twenty-first century perspective, Weems has re-imagined Johnston's photographs, produ-cing large prints based on the images and adding textual catch phrases to spin the images in fresh ways.

Along one gallery wall, for example, two photographs of a group of Native American men are positioned side by side. One shows the men before being "reformed" and the other shows the men afterward, traditional attire completely gone. In a different sense of the word, the men have been "re-formed."

"She shows how even the most seemingly benevolent gestures can be emotionally charged," Cart-wright said.

Weems' creative re-working of Johnston's images culminates in a fully visual and auditory experience. Printing photographs onto large hanging scrims, Weems mixes her own text-laced images with others of the Ku Klux Klan or with familiar portraits like that of Martin Luther King, Jr. She creates a maze of overlapping images, through which viewers are forced to wander and reflect upon, all while Weems' recorded voice reads text aloud, resonating throughout the gallery.

"Weems suggests a layering of experience, with photographs as remembering devices. She builds images upon other images," Cartwright said.

In revisiting Johnston's "Hampton Album" a century later, Weems encourages her viewers to approach photographs not simply as images frozen in time. Instead of reflecting on only their initially intended meanings, Weems regards photographs as alternatively dynamic, ready to be studied anew and merely awaiting their viewers' modern points of view.