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Take me to the water, River Baptisms


The exhibition Take me to the water exposes photographs of river baptisms taken in the American South and Midwest between 1880 et 1930. Donated to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2007 by collectors Janna Rosenkranz and Jim Linderman, these pictures provide a unique dive into the holy waters of rural America.

Jim Linderman undoubtedly had in mind James Allen’s explosive exhibition about the lynching of African Americans. The memory of this wildly successful exhibition, Without Sanctuary, first displayed in New York in the year 2000 and at the 2009 edition of the Rencontres d’Arles, rekindled the collector’s interest for pictures of baptismal ceremonies, purchased at flea markets and from antique merchants. Aware of their documentary value, Jim Lindermain donated his collection of over 200 pictures to the ICP in 2007 for a future exhibition.

Twenty of those pictures, carefully selected by the exhibition’s curator Erin Barnett, provide original witness to the religious traditions of America’s lower class. Crowds, immersion scenes, Afro-American baptisms. The ‘local color’ provided by these pictures is an exceptional research item for anthropologists, explains Erin Barnett. Perceived as an ethnological curiosity by Americans from the north, these baptisms, celebrated by both Blacks and Whites in the south, stimulated the still segregated American public.

“People didn’t see these baptisms with a racist eye, but rather as a tradition unlike their own” commented Erin Barnett. The omnipresence of the river, transformed into a place of worship, and the massive crowd gathered there to watch the ceremony brought intense dramatic tension to the work. The composition, accentuating the density of the crowd with wide-angle crops or panoramic views, provided a spectacular element to the traveler seeking exotica.

During this golden age for post cards, these pictures were an easy source of income for the photographers. “At the time, each event was transformed into a post card” says Erin Barnett. Professionals or amateurs, local celebrities or anonymous subjects, the photographers sold their pictures to the crowd gathered for the baptism. For Barnett, “They tried to shoot wide angles to include the most people in the picture”. Other photographers, often visible in the picture, were just travelers whose pictures were used to fill their albums.

At the time, two types of post cards were printed: those destined for private sale, as souvenirs, and those printed for mass publication. The latter, designed to travel, would alter the pictures’ otherwise documentary vision. In an America where the idea of racial difference was paramount, these pictures of religious rituals performed largely by the local African American populations were transformed into vehicles of the segregationist white population. “A part of this project was to raise public awareness of the post card as an object” continues Barnett. On the back of these post cards, notes revealed surprise. Others, overtly racist, ridiculed these sacred baptisms.

Take me to the river revives interest confronting the photographer with African American cultural heritage. Indeed, these pictures of protestant baptism as photo-souvenirs or postcards don’t have the same violence as the racist murders in Without Sanctuary. Nevertheless, the transformation of these pictures of African Americans presented as curious animals is a reminder of America’s old demons. “These pictures are another example of the country’s segregation at the time. They reveal the disrespect”.

Jonas Cuénin

Take me to the water : Photographs of river baptisms

Until May 8
International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

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