Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Silent witness

Posted By on Wed, Dec 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM

During the deconstruction of the post-Civil War Reconstruction dream of 40 acres and a mule, African-Americans, after only the briefest of sightings, disappeared from the horizon of history. From the late 1860s through the early 1900s, they were neither little noted nor long remembered except as famous firsts — or as the statistical victims of the bad intentions of Jim Crow’s various psychotic needs and greeds.

Camera Man’s Journey: Julian Dimock’s South offers a series of photographs taken between January 1904 and November 1905. They are primarily of African-Americans in and around the South Carolina areas of Columbia, Beaufort and Hilton Head. Dimock, a white photographer from New Jersey, has left a documentary legacy that partially rescues his subjects from the invisibility of the sort suffered by Ralph Ellison’s title character in a later decade.

The pictures give us a rare and valuable, albeit outsider’s, view of the area’s town and rural inhabitants involved in various public acts of commerce: farming, the doing and carrying of laundry, hauling others’ discards, shucking oysters or vending from animal-drawn wagons on unpaved roads by unpainted pine-boarded houses. Others are doing domestic chores, tending babies, posing, conversing or biding their time.

It’s the children who adapted most naturally to being before Dimock’s lens. Huck Finn-like images of school-aged boys, hand-walking beside a split-rail fence or kite-flying in an open field, symbolize the first degree of separation from slavery. As the first generation of African-American youngsters free to indulge in leisure-time fun, they cavort without pretense, confront the camera head-on or completely ignore it.

Adults come off less naturally. At the time, South Carolina’s middle-class and working-poor colored citizens were still very much under the gun. Their survival still depended on their knowing and not straying beyond the boundaries of the physical and psychological “place” ceded to them by local laws and mores.

There had been a lynching only days before Dimock arrived. Therefore the informal formality of a white man pointing a camera at them meant a halt and the necessary stillness for it all to work to the photographer’s satisfaction — which they knew to be the ultimate aim of the exercise. This realization and the absence of any concern that his subjects had a life beyond his immediate viewing of them gives his work a hushed, museumlike aura. But the sense is that, for all its inclusive detail, there’s something missing.

Dimock didn’t venture past the front porch of any of the African-Americans whose images he captures. There are no interior shots of African-American homes or structures. No communal connectors. No churches. No places in which they gather for social events. There are no family groupings. They stand like individual chess pieces devoid of an explanatory context for their lives other than their public personas.

On balance, our opportunity to see Dimock’s photographs far outweighs most critical reservations about them. This is due in large part to the strength of the spirits of the individuals pictured. There’s not a face among his street portraits, child or adult, that doesn’t shine with its own sense of individual dignity. The result is a connection with the present that transcends the casual encounter and time’s ephemeral obscurity.

For instance, there’s Albert Singleton, one of the book’s few subjects identified by name. Singleton, a young man, stares narrow-eyed and unapologetically into the camera. His head is close-shaved. He wears a three-button sport coat with upturned collar and rolled-neck knit sweater. His presence is so immediate that he could believably be standing on the corner of Woodward and Mack, or in Cape Town, Kingston or Soweto, rather than, as the caption tells us, on the island of Hilton Head on April 10, 1904. Distant is the past? How soon the future?

These images are to be treasured as well as pondered. We’re fortunate Dimock recorded them for us.

Return to the Holiday books 2002 index.

Bill Harris writes about books and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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