Steve Locke’s Family Pictures

by Jeff Perrott

Steve Locke’s new exhibition of installed photographic works, Family Pictures — up through Saturday, November 30 at Kayafas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave, Boston - is perhaps the most important and vital body of artwork to be exhibited in Boston in my recent memory.  Like all great art, its reach and trajectory extend far beyond Boston’s small art enclave, and should be felt by and reverberate into the area’s social, political, and racial fabric.  Together with the concurrent exhibition School of Love (itself a great work) at Samson Projects, also at 450 Harrison Ave in Boston, this work shows Locke conjoining his exceptional artistic skill, mastery, political acuity, historical depth, and deep sense of the experiential mechanisms of meaning, to present a full-throated indictment of the deep set racisms that disease contemporary culture today, and continue to spur normalized violence to black and brown bodies. 

The images Locke employs at the center of this work are lynching cards — black and white photographs of atrocities visited on black bodies and used in the late 19th through mid 20th centuries by Whites in the United States as postcards, keepsakes, mementos—used for terror, intimidation, and, in the artist's words, from a recent email:

‘…for the people who take comfort in images of black suffering because those images are an assurance of their White supremacy.  Their sense of safety depends upon the presence of brutality meted out to black people.’ 

But Locke doesn’t simply display these images nakedly to index the horror that might be seen as distant or other (or worse, recycled by the forces of supremacy), but instead embeds them in a series of photographic framings that at once reclaim and repurpose the lynching image as revelatory, while mitigating directly any desire to keep these images safely in the ‘past’ or safely at arm’s length.  These nested frames do not do the work traditionally assigned to frames—to decorate or bracket artwork with tropes of ownership, meaning, and viewing norms—but instead use those tropes to perform a liberatory operation: they show how the brutality and supremacy of the past are here, now—even, and especially, in the heart and mind of the viewer, and in the pervasive privilege many of us enjoy.

I just wrote us. Steve Locke’s Family Portraits cannot be experienced in its fullness from the vacuum or distance of an easy, objective, historically- or art-historically codified place.  It’s personal: the part of me that is perhaps afraid to write this in full is the part that is indicted by Family Pictures: the part that sees in the mirror of Locke’s work one who is complicit in the violence depicted here—not in a lynch mob, but in the silence and privilege that normalizes and enables violence against black and brown bodies today. 

So some readers might stop here. Because, first, make no mistake: the images we’re talking about here are awful, horrible, shocking: images of black bodies strung from tree limbs, burned and charred black bodies, surrounded by proud, menacing, angry, sometimes gleeful white perpetrators.  If we look, and turn away, we haven't gotten very far toward, or to the point of, Locke's transformative gesture, his art.  And we’ve earned the criticism about our silence and complicity.  

So the Family Pictures on display here are not anyone else's family pictures; they're ours, they’re mine. Locke brings me there steadily, as his nested frames develop a narrative of looking that keeps me in contact with and aware of the unspoken beliefs behind my habitual responses to these images—beliefs which encourage subtle but no less potent forms of violence.

First Frame

The first frame—the lynching card—narrates the violence inherent in, and inherited from, not just the atrocities depicted in each image, but in how they are used: for trophy, sport, terror, intimidation, and, in their use as traded and collectible currency, as ‘proof' of White power and supremacy by whites who depend on this dominance and normalized violence of the black other for their security. We witness the horror of White dominance and violence and the explicit tools and tactics of White supremacy: photographing the brutalized, denigrated, and lifeless black bodies of victims, along with the white perpetrators; and we see also images of domestic White power, white babies nursed by black women, denigrated by stereotype and exploited functionally. 

This is the most shocking and affecting frame, it is also perhaps the most familiar and normalized frame for many viewers: familiar and normalized in the sense not just that we may have seen and considered the images before, but also in the sense that their codified historical surface—grainy black and white images featuring early 20th-century markers—can more easily be rendered as past and passed over: as not today, and perhaps not relevant for today.  But we may also have the uncanny feeling we have seen all this before—maybe in the present, maybe on our TV screens.  Perhaps in our horror, couched in appropriate outrage, undergirded by the false sense that these lynching and denigrating images are of the past, we won’t recognize the repetition of these images in HD.  We may not see Laquan McDonald’s or Eric Garner’s body in that past lynching scene, nor recognize that when we repeatedly witness the brutality to their bodies on CNN, we become the faces in the crowd of perpetrators, and the casual recipients, observers, collectors, and traders of these cards-turned-digital-images

Second Frame

Locke’s successive framings are designed to mitigate our reflexive denial about our current circumstance, our tendency to say it’s different now or it’s not like that today, and to split off my presence, my hereness, from the depicted scenes.  To accomplish this, he first places the cards inside banal kitschy frames—frames clearly of today.  They’re the kind you get at Target or Wal-mart, frames that want to contain happy family images designed to create and reify an image of stability, wholesomeness, comfort and security.  Captioned with Hallmark sentiments, they seem to say we are safe and happy.  

These happy, banal sentiments caption the card images in what reads, at first, as total dissonance: Good Times Good Friends captions white men in quasi-formalwear admiring a burning, charred, half-consumed black body; a night lynching scene with a proud white finger pointing out two dead hung bodies gets captioned I Can’t Believe We Did That!; and Who Wouldn’t Want To Be Us? describes a group of white men parting smilingly to allow a snapshot of their recent atrocity.  But the caption’s incongruity is driven only by the presupposition of the viewer, again, the sense that this is not here, now, or me.  The inverted sentiments of these frames, after all, celebrate, memorialize, and normalize the violence they depict—exactly what the cards were designed to do.  But their everyday kitschy contemporariness brings them into my now, and may chafe, if my now is congruent with the sentiment, but not with the image

Taken by themselves, these kitschy sentiments are markers not just of reified ‘happiness’, but of the cultural imperative toward mnemonic biases that split off whatever we don't like in our history, to favor and integrate into our sense of ourselves the things we like, exactly to reinforce and grow those very biases.  Such was the function and work of the lynching card, to split off black lives from White lives as lives that don’t matter, are worthy only of contempt, exploitation, and brutality, to better ensure White dominance and control—to remember who we are, and who they are. 

But aren’t the biases expressed on the lynching card identical to those expressed on the Wal-mart frame, but with the sentiments of the former split off from my self-image by the biases expressed by the latter? Aren’t the kitsch sentiments laced with the bias against that which I don’t want to be considered part of, that I wish had never happened, or wish wasn’t happening now—for example, in the collective White memory: slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, institutional criminality, and current police brutality. Locke’s choice of these sentimental frames collapses the historical biases of then and now, and in doing so exposes the gap between the biases that represent and sustain my current image of my happiness and goodness, on the one hand, and the current atrocities I observe, but do nothing about, on the other. I want to forget these things ever happened or aren’t happening, or—failing that—that they are at least not able to disrupt the happy image I hold of myself. 

Third Frame

The personal narrative gets extended and complicated by the third frame: the imagined ‘real’ of Locke’s photographic lens, the repeated, symmetrical, identical, and hierarchical nature morte he has set up to house the kitsch-framed cards, forming a visual invariance (excepting background color) as we move from work to work.  This serves two functions: first, the invariance refocuses attention on the juxtaposition of the first two frames—horrifying historical atrocities captioned by contemporary banal sentiments—and keeps us in the discomfort of our sense of their uncanny congruity; and, second, it weakens gestalt considerations of formal difference (which would pull us into abstract evaluations), except as a repetition.  It is, after all, repetition of the dominant gaze itself that creates normalcy.  (Witness the normalization of current White supremacist views via media repetition following the recent election).

As the repetition of that gaze creates, supports and sustains its dominance, it draws into itself and folds into that normal its manifold representations—in this case, its manifold atrocities and its representations of those atrocities.  But Locke has added to that manifold the domestic place of these images: where they might be shown, kept, adored.  It’s that domestic place that gets repeated, one imagines, in home after home after home, deepening the normalcy, creating my normal.  And so lastly, most importantly, the imagined real becomes the real real: this real, my real, my normal, me standing here observing the real surface of photography, representing itself as my wall, my table, my frame, my lynching card, my life, my now.  Past becomes not just present but presence—not just the present of the political, social, cultural situation out there, but that situation right here.  The gaze of Locke’s photographic lens becomes my gaze, conspiring with my reflexive tendency to normalize: my simple normal exposed as my hidden normalized

Fourth Frame

Locke’s fourth frame is how he presents the photographs for viewing: in long, waist-high pine vitrines that compel us to look down at the images through highly reflective glass. The twelve images that comprise each set are laid out in specific order, and tightly arranged so that we pass by each image, and view each set, in a steady, regulated, horizontal order.  Processing before the vitrines with others at the show’s opening was as an open casket viewing, of multiple and repeated dead: a somber, ordered procession, a viewing of multiple bodies, pre-resurrected bodies, victims of murder; a viewing of the horror and atrocity of each death reified in the stillness and formality of the vitrines, reinforced and mimicked by the stillness of the photograph, and called forth by the repetitive nature morte tableau depicted in each one.  

The architecture of the vitrines describes a somber and formal participation, infused with sacredness and reverence, which suggests transformation. Locke doesn’t allow his photographic images to be viewed from a comfortable distance in ‘real’ frames.  He instead uses the experiential situation of the vitrine to fully reclaim the image from that habitual residence, in order to represent the cards, the scene, and all the nested frames, as a form of memorial, an honoring of these bodies, and a refusal to allow them to remain as curiosities or enablers of violence.  The vitrines offer not so much a reimagining of the lives of the victims (we cannot imagine away the horror), but an exhumation of these images from White imagining and an honorable and ennobling memorialization.  A chance to reverently remember.  In this gesture, the domestic tableau, the kitsch frame, and the lynching card all gain the weight of that memorialization—hopefully, an honoring of fallen bodies that will carry the works’ intended transformation: a call to action. 

Fifth Frame

And this memorialization opens the fifth frame, which Locke has created and conjured to the surface so carefully through the steady journey of the first four: my gaze—in my case, my White gaze, now rendered clearly and transformed in the steady light of the truth offered by the experience. For if these are Family Portraits, how do they depict and render my family, other families, black families, White families? Here’s where Steve Locke’s work really takes root in the heart, with questions specific to every viewing, that cut through the fog of denial and angle toward a real solution: how is my gaze, my privilege, my fragility, my silence, and my inaction complicit in the manifold violences of the present, and built on the violences of the past? Even if I am not perpetrating the crimes depicted, am I not still complicit in the world those acts of violence handed me—particularly if I am silent and refuse to interrogate and work to change the institutions of privilege and sanctuary I enjoy? 

Isn’t Our Honeymoon a metaphor for the seemingly permanent honeymoon of White privilege—built in the hull of a slave ship?  How can I say the White perpetrators depicted in Who Wouldn’t Want To Be Us are not me, when the sentiment can easily be rendered Who Wouldn’t Want To Be White?  And does the beside in It's not where you go or what you do, It's who is beside you that counts become a statement of the dismissal of other, of the wish to maintain superiority embedded in my silence?

Perhaps the work that best expresses this transformation is Memories.  It pictures a smaller group of whites—perhaps a family—that don’t look like the menacing and bloodthirsty perpetrators of the mobs depicted in other images.  They seem more like bystanders, a family out for a Sunday walk in the woods who encounter a lynched, broken body as if they had encountered a dead deer or some woodland curiosity.  A young girl pokes her head toward the camera from the front right corner of the frame, nonplussed and relaxed at the scene.  Horror?  Atrocity?  Terror? None of the disgust we register at the image gets reflected in the cool poses for the camera. 

I may be able to distance myself from the perpetrators, but can I distance myself from the violence of the bystander of yesterday or today, whose silence and refusal to act enable and embolden these crimes? Do I watch in ‘horror’ as atrocities to People of Color loop across my TV screen, and in effect I pose with them within the tableau of my privileged life?  Do I feel bad, shed tears, show up at book readings and rallies and wear a pin and an armband and form groups, but when it comes time to interrogate the structures that sustain my privilege, I leave it all at the threshold? Do I really like my privilege, and don't want to disrupt it?  

These are just a few of the questions Steve Locke’s Family Pictures gifts to me.  Perhaps the main difference between the then depicted in the lynching cards, and the now of the violence of silence that Locke has so carefully framed for me, is simply the depth of our denial, and the depth of our blindness—our inability too often to witness the everyday violence in plain view because the fabric of our everyday life is so soaked through with its blood, we can no longer distinguish it from the patterns in our wallpaper.

In the clarity of this realization, perhaps we can find a way forward. Locke suggests so, finally, in his use of the background interior wall color of each successive set of images: from yellow to green to blue to red, invoking alchemical markers of the transformation of base material into gold: in this case, the gold of awareness and truth rendered from the base denial, silence, complicity, and ignorance of my gaze. Perhaps, if we can stay and spend time here in the discomfort of our horror at the images and our complicity, if we can make it through the pain and grief of witnessing and owning the personal truth represented, then it will work on us with its clarifying agency—not absolving us of responsibility, but placing it where it always lived: in our hearts and hands.  Maybe it will spur us to more than good intentions and the right opinions—maybe to honestly interrogate our Whiteness, to vigorously tear out the roots of White supremacy where we encounter them inside and outside of us, and to wholly and permanently defect from its effects in our lives.  When we take on this transformation, we may perhaps really, finally, have done something.  

November 2016

Read More Writings by/on Jeff Perrott