Andrew Roth announces the opening of Witness: Photographs of Lynchings from the Collection of James Allen and John Littlefield. On display will be a selection of seventy-five photographs accompanied by historical ephemera and publications.
James Allen, “picker” and antiques dealer from Atlanta, has amassed, over the last decade, an archive of photographs documenting the history of lynchings in the United States from 1880 to 1960. The photographs were taken predominantly as souvenirs: most were printed on photosensitized postcard stock, and many were sent to friends and relatives. One card, for example, bears the image of a charred body hanging from a pole on the front and this hand-written message on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”
Witness coincides with the release of Without Sanctuary published by Twin Palms Publishers. Included in the book are ninety-eight images from Allen’s collection, with essays by Hilton Als, Leon Litwack, Congressman John Lewis and Allen, himself. In the foreword, Lewis states: “The[se] photographs…make real the hideous crimes that were committed against all humanity—the hangings, burnings, and castrations. All of this is unreal and unbelievable.”
This collection presents brutal events and highlights the public spectacle associated with them. The images address not only the darker side of the human psyche but the unsettling fascination with chronicling and preserving such atrocities for posterity. Perhaps this is best illuminated by Allen in his afterword: “… Studying these photographs has engendered in me a caution of whites, of the majority, of the young, of religion, of the accepted. A certain circumspection concerning these things was already in me, but surely not as actively as after the first sight of a brittle postcard of Leo Frank dead in an oak tree. It wasn’t the corpse that bewildered me as much as the canine-thin faces of the pack, lingering in the woods, circling after the kill.”