CHRONICLES OF A BLACK FAMILY
CARRIE MAE WEEMS has an extraordinary ability to communicate. The Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Mass., is presenting until Jan. 12 her photographic series, "Family Pictures and Stories," with text and an audiotape of Weems's mellow voice relating the personal histories of the Polk and Weems families, who migrated from Mississippi to Oregon. Sometimes the tape is in concert with the photographs and text and sometimes in counterpoint. In viewing the probing photographs, reading the loving, yet frank commentary, and listening to the touching narrative, one feels as if Weems has opened a door into her life. The following are excerpts from an interview in which the photographer discussed her work and art. Why did you decide to do "Family Pictures and Stories"? It's in answer to my desire to understand my experience in relation to my family and my family's experience in relation to black families in this country. A part of the tape relates more to my mother's experience than mine, but I'm interested in interpreting her story and in understanding her voice. To a certain extent, her experience is mine, but of course it never quite is. I am fascinated by the distances between people in the same family, between men and women, and between ethnic groups and nationali ties through the use of language derived from experience. There's a certain language that comes out of sharecropping and cotton farming, that comes out of the way men and women, women and children, and women and women share experiences. That's the vitality of language. Interpretations, make-believe, fiction, storytelling, and folklore are all part of the truth. You look at the photograph of Alice lying on a bed. It's dark, soft, and sensuous. But the other language, the text, says that Alice is a tough cookie. Well, which do you believe? Hopefully, the contradi ction forces you back into the photograph to see how it works with the text. The addition of the text doesn't lock down the meaning. There is no one meaning that you walk away with from this show, but you engage in a tri-level experience - interacting with the images, reading the text, and listening to the audio portion. The photographs that interest me the most, regardless of their beauty as objects, are those which have the wonder, the texture, and the precision of the language that rests beneath them. How did you get started in photography? I used to be a dancer with Anna Halpern in San Francisco. At the same time, I was doing a lot of political organizing and decided that dance wasn't serving this need. My boyfriend, a photographer, bought me a camera for my twenty-first birthday. Shortly thereafter, he gave me a copy of the "Black Photographers Annual," a publication from New York, edited by Joseph Crawford. That book was so amazing to me. For the first time I saw black people imaged photographically in a way that affirmed what I thought was basic about them. Most of the photographs of black people that you had seen were by white photographers? Sure. ... There certainly haven't been many [black photographers] that have become well known. Only in recent years, thanks to feminism and the rewriting of photographic history, women have been inserted in really important positions - white women, that is. Jeanne Marie Moutoussamy Ashe, Arthur Ashe's wife, wrote a book called "Black Women Photographers," which goes from the turn of the century to about 1970. Black women photographers, however, were usually working commercially, very rarely as artistic p hotographers. You started out as a documentary photographer. Yes, I was very much interested in documentary photography as a vehicle for expression, as a political tool. It was a way of capturing the human condition. Documentary is a very potent vehicle. But a photograph can be slanted. How do you ensure that a photograph is understood within your intended context? All of it is open to interpretations, assumptions, and opinions. Where did you study photography? At the California Institute for the Arts. Then, I went to the University of California in San Diego for my masters in photography in 1984. I have a deep interest in folklore and got a masters in it as well at [University of California], Berkeley. These days you must have difficulty finding time to work. You seem to be receiving a lot of recognition and appreciation. Yes, I've been showing more, being contacted more. But no matter what, I'm always working against the odds. I'm not comfortable unless I'm working on to the next project. I have to refigure my life, work, and play to find more space for people I love and who love me. What are you working on now? I continue to work with race, ethnicity, and interrelationships. These are the things I'm dealing with in my own life. The issue of race is still crucial in the 20th century, because not much has changed. Sometimes I think they're getting worse at the same time they're getting better. The world is getting much more diverse, and white people for the first time are becoming minorities in major financial centers across the country. What will the new relationship be? I find that fascinating. So, in my work s ocial change is always a concern. I'm very responsible about my work. I care that I've articulated my concerns. I care more about the ideas than with my own photo-artistic endeavors to communicate them.