Collection Talk: Alan Cohen, “Now (Slave Plantation, St. John, Virgin Islands), 09-01” [Video]

Throughout 2022-23 a series of talks considers works from the Block’s collection that reckon with the history of slavery, white supremacy, symbols of nationhood, and social inequity. This series is held in connection with 2022–23 One Book One Northwestern selection “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” by Clint Smith. In this online talk, Academic Curator Corinne Granof discusses Alan Cohen’s photograph “Now (Slave Plantation, St. John, Virgin Islands), 09-01 ” (March 1995).

In the 1990s Chicago photographer Alan Cohen traveled to sites of historical trauma, including a sugar plantation on the island of St. John in the Caribbean. Photographs from this series do not directly represent the pain and suffering associated with historic sites, nor do they capture their broader meaning. The photographs document the site, but at the same time provide little or no information about its history. It is primarily from the titles that we understand it as a place where human exploitation and abuse took place, and where so much money was made off the forced labor of enslaved people.

In focusing on the ground of a site and the patterns in its brick walkways, these photographs question the capacity of photography to document the past. How is human suffering articulated in the site itself—in a brick on a path or in its infrastructure? How do we reconcile the beauty of the place with the horrible events and cruel system it represents? Without evidence of trauma, brutality, and suffering in the images themselves, the photographs are troubling because of what is left out.

“So I want to step back and ask, why is Cohen working in this way? Why doesn’t he give us more context or more information when he goes to these sites to photograph? And what is the value in presenting this small slice of a place, through showing very tangible, but almost, or sometimes indecipherable details?

And I want to suggest that by giving us this very tactile, very tangible view, Alan Cohen and Clint Smith are thinking along very similar lines in their approach to the past. For Cohen, it’s the documentation of the site itself, the fact of the site itself, without added interpretation, and Cohen’s mission to document what is true, as he recently told me in a phone conversation.

“What I trusted to be true was the earth. The stone, dirt, barrack remnants, traces upon the earth were my links to the camp’s history.” And this is so similar to one of the quotes from Clint Smith, in the chapter on the Whitney Plantation. He writes, “There was something unique about running my hands over a two century old piece of wood and knowing that an enslaved person’s fingers had once traced those same cracks.” So both Cohen and Smith suggest that there is a value in being at the site where the events took place, the trauma, the oppression, the injustice, seeing the remnants, and whether it’s stones or wooden structure or the earth itself, is an act of remembering.”

– Corinne Granof

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