What do you see? It all depends.


Carrie Mae Weems. “Some Laughed Long & Hard & Loud,” 1995-96. From the series, “From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried,” Chromogenic print with etched text on glass, 26 1/2 x 22 3/4 inches. ( Copyright Carrie Mae Weems; Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

In 1967, Garry Winogrand took the photograph on top left, now on view at the National Gallery of Art. It was controversial: At first it seems a tasteless joke about a mixed-race couple with their “children,” but over time it reveals a complicated dignity and humanity in its subjects. The man on the right was, in fact, a well-known animal handler in New York. Tod Papageorge, now director of the graduate photography program at the Yale University School of Art, was photographing with Winogrand that day and made the image on the bottom. While Winogrand composed the scene tightly, capturing a somber couple apparently passing through a hostile, voyeuristic space, Papageorge discovered a moment of levity (Winogrand is at left). Photographer Carrie Mae Weems (see exhibition review page E5) appropriated the Winogrand in a series that explored the exploitation of African Americans in photography. By including Winogrand’s dispassionate image along with 19th-century slave images, and by emblazoning the words “Some Laughed Long & Hard & Loud,” Weems suggests that the original was part of that deeply racist photographic history. That wasn’t fair. Winogrand unleashed meaning without making a definitive statement, Papageorge captured the context and neutered the ugly racism some people found in the image, while Weems assumes the racism is intended and uses it without reference to Winogrand’s larger, more ambiguous body of work.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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