On its online Library of Congress page, this photograph is dated July 1939, titled “Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” and indexed under “segregation.”
If you’re less than 30 years old, the time may have come for you to learn formally that the frieze at the top and bottom of this print is the pattern of sprocket holes along the edges of a roll of 35-millimeter film. The negatives produced by that phototechnology were tiny, just 24 millimeters in one dimension and ordinarily 36 mm in the other, and in the absence of any electronics their resolution couldn’t be high. So the sense communicated most immediately by this photograph is something not visual (say, its composition of forms) but historiographic — that is, the word “Colored.” That word evokes emotion, but the emotion is word-based and its word-based non-visual origins are multiple and incompatible. Depending on who you are and how your politics are oriented, what you see in this picture of a word may evoke either anger or nostalgia. In 1939 Russell Lee took the picture on assignment for a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, but if he were a Fox News cameraman in 2020 his product would be seen under a different regime of intention.
But in 2020, electronics can be brought to bear. In Photoshop I open the Nik filter called Dark Contrasts, and it darkens the word’s context and fades its ambiguities to black.
Now I can see the clean shirt and the rest of the clothing layer. As of 1939 the baggy pin-striped pants with high waist and narrow white belt were flashy-fashionable, as was the hat with its low crown, big ribbon, and dramatic curves. “I display,” they say. “Consider loving me.” But all around the clothing layer, now, is a grime. In 1939, when the word “Colored” was simply an aspect of the environment, the grime was latent and unseen. In 2020, the phrase “dark contrasts” helps us see it. The control reveals the grime to be not just a layer of visual effects like the clothes but a corpus of blackened qualities pervading both the image and its historical contexts, from the negative’s photosensitive surface to the darkness inside the camera and from the grime on the walls to the statute that erected them. From the dark image that then results we can learn that it isn’t the clothing that is to be loved; it is the colored man.
About him we can ask the dark: what was it to have been that thirsting body within its layer of clean clothes? And if the visual regime of Fox News prevails, what will it be again?