For my final post on photographer Carrie Mae Weems (see here and here for earlier posts on the recent retrospective exhibition of her work), I want to look at her “Constructing History” series. In it, she reappropriates iconic images from the 1960s to the near present, staging them with her students in tableaux and photographing the result.
At times, her image is fairly close to that of the iconic photographs, such as the one from the National Guard-student confrontation at Kent State over the Vietnam War in the 1970s (first two images). At other times, like one representing the Dallas motorcade in which President Kennedy was shot (second two images), Weems makes a stylized version that foregrounds its very iconicity—it’s an image frozen in time and seemingly partly about its own fame. “Constructing History” shares concerns with “From Here I Saw What Happened” in that both are about a kind of photographic intertextuality: how do we see these pictures in time? Who speaks in these pictures, and who speaks back?
Unlike the earlier projects I’ve written about, however, “Constructing History” is fairly recent. The images were made in 2008, unlike “American Icons,” which is a product of the late 1980s, and “From Here I Saw What Happened,” which was done in the mid-1990s. What I particularly like about it is that it makes her concerns very explicit–how we each embody and have our own perspective on history. And, unlike her earlier series, it is not photographic only; the tableaux are available for viewing as well as the images made from them. (Part of the process of making them is shown in a video from Art21, the wonderful site about contemporary artists. The video also shows more images than her Web site does.)
In the tableaux and the photographs, her students embody and take on the perspective of people from the past; moreover, we see the tableaux in a slightly different perspective than that of the original photographs. The series plays with the literalness of three-dimensionality to make it a metaphor: We each have our own perspective on, and bring another dimension to, events. In that way, her work is not only about inclusion of other perspectives; it is about making inclusion real by literalizing the variance in perspective.
The Art21 video links the concerns of “Constructing History” with her earlier concerns of reappropriating images and telling different stories as a result. I have to share one of the stories in the video here. When Weems first developed her “From Here I Saw What Happened” series, Harvard University (which owned some of the original daguerreotypes) threatened to sue her. Then, after some legal wrangling, they dropped the suit but wanted a payment each time one of the Weems images was used. And the end result? They bought the Weems photographs.
Good on them at last. What a fitting arc of history.