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Carrie Mae Weems on using photography to peel back the image of power

May 9, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
Artist Carrie Mae Weems has used photography to explore national and personal history, using herself and her family as stand-ins to explore common narratives, and using the medium as a tool to challenge stereotypes. Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown talks to the renowned artist about her career as a visual storyteller.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, an artist examining history and her own times through photography.

Jeff is back with our report.

A woman sitting at a kitchen table, an everyday snapshot, perhaps, but this is carefully constructed, part of the kitchen table series created in 1990 of scenes from a woman’s life.

CARRIE MAE WEEMS, Photographer: What’s the life of a woman in relationship to a family, in relationship to a man, to children, to her friends and to herself?

JEFFREY BROWN: And the woman, the subject, is the photographer herself, Carrie Mae Weems.

CARRIE MAE WEEMS: Somehow, I sort of think of myself really sort of standing in for something more than me, that this character I have developed leads me through the world in a very interesting way and takes me to situations and places that probably Carrie wouldn’t ordinarily go.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re seeing yourself as kind of a character in these photographs that we’re looking at?

JEFFREY BROWN: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: The artist who is Carrie Mae Weems is in the midst of a major moment, winning a MacArthur genius award last week, honored with a retrospective of her work that has traveled around the country, ending at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where she was the first African-American woman ever given a solo exhibition.

Among the work on display, a series of her extended family pushing back against the narratives of the breakdown of black families, other series that explore racial stereotypes, as in “Ain’t Jokin,” and links between the history of blacks in Africa and the American South.

Born in Portland in 1953, Weems didn’t pick up a camera in a serious way until she was 20 years old.

Did you understand the power of the image right away and the importance it would play for you in your life?

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t know what it would play for me, I didn’t know what it would mean for me, but I knew something was really profound about it and I immediately loved it, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you love?

JEFFREY BROWN: Photography is a wonderful way of entering the world and of getting outside of oneself. It forces you to look at the world in a very particularly kind of way. And it asks you to look not at that, but at this.

And it’s in that looking that you discover really the multiplicity of a single thing and the depth of a certain thing, not only of a certain thing, but your relationship to that thing and your relationship, therefore, with yourself is deepened.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of her best known series is “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” in which Weems took 19th century photographs, many slaves, tinted them a deep red and put text across them, “A Negroid Type,” “An Anthropological Debate,” “And Their Daughter,” in effect giving these objectified people a new life as subjects in their own right.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m deeply fascinated with history and I have been for a long time.

It’s a part of my DNA, trying to understand the historical context in which something is situated in. It’s within that context that then I’m allowed to play with other kinds of questions. What are we looking at within that context?

Well, for me, of course, I’m always sort of peeling back what I understand to be power. I’m really fascinated with the hand of power and justice, the gestures of power, and how to penetrate it, understand it, rebuke it, challenge it, question it, but also understand it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In more recent work, Weems has brought herself into the frame once more, but now with her back to us, the viewers. Here she says he’s a silent witness of institutions and places.

JEFFREY BROWN: I love that gesture. It’s a wonderful gesture, you know, of displacement. Right? Even as I’m in the center of the frame, there’s wonderful space for the audience to move past the subject, the body and towards the subject.

I think that there’s a wonderful sense of discovery and transformation that happens there that excites me.

JEFFREY BROWN: At heart, Weems says she’s a storyteller, working with beautiful images that ask the viewer to look, and then look again, even at what on the surface seems familiar. And the story continues. She’s at work on a new project called “Swinging Into 60,” about women like her in their 60s who came of age in the 1960s.

If each series of photographs is a kind of story, I asked, what larger tale emerges from her whole body of work?

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t know if it adds up to a story, but I do think that it adds up to a very particular kind of point of view. I take great joy in the idea of communicating, of expressing an idea, of challenging preexisting notions.

So that’s an important way of living — of living my life, and I have heard that it’s actually a very courageous thing to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carrie Mae Weems, thanks for talking to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.