A Photograph Never Stands Alone

Teju Cole in The New York Times:

CottonDanny Lyon’s photograph “The Cotton Pickers” makes me tense. I love and hate it at the same time. The photograph is from the late 1960s, but its form is so iconic and its atmosphere so fabular that it could have been made a hundred years earlier. On a wide field, men are stooped over in agricultural labor. The field stretches a great distance back, ending in a line of trees that marks out the horizon. The men working the field are dressed all in white. They have long white sacks on their backs and white hats on their heads. It’s hard to tell exactly how many of them there are, perhaps just under three dozen, but the four or five in front are distinct. These men in front, in addition to being dressed similarly, are stooped in unison. Their faces are very dark, devoid of detail. It cannot be said with certainty that they are black men (they could simply be caught in deep daytime shadow), but they very likely are.

This photograph (“The Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas,” to give it its full title) has an extraordinary sense of rhythm, a rhythm that makes it as visually arresting as René Burri’s photograph of four men on a rooftop in São Paulo. “The Cotton Pickers” was taken on a prison farm. The long curve of each man’s back is continuous with the line of the sack slung from his shoulder and set down behind him on the ground. This gives each man a strange profile, as though he were some long-bodied, giant-tailed marsupial. The photograph has such high contrast that it looks more like an engraving or a painting. Set against the field’s darkness, the cotton crop is floral in effect, or astral. Or, as the escaped slave Solomon Northup wrote in a surprising passage in his 1853 memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave”: “There are few sights more pleasant to the eye, than a wide cotton field when it is in the bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow.”

Images make us think of other images.

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