Pub date August 5, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art


PHOTO ISSUE Take Me to the Water (Dust-to-Digital, 96 pages, $32.50) is an eccentric archive, under the same bewildering sign as Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). It comprises both a book (75 sepia plates of full immersion baptism scenes performed in nature) and accompanying CD in the same vein as Dust-to-Digital’s earlier ark of covenants, Goodbye, Babylon (2003). But the beautifully reproduced photographs are what make it worthwhile.

They were made at a time when photography was reserved for occasion (one shudders to think of the contemporaneous rage for photographs of lynching scenes). A photograph, like a baptism, was something you dressed up for. In many images here, figures stare down the camera, distracted from the spectacle at hand. One atypical shot looks as if it was snapped under cover of trees: we peer through shrubs at a minister and convert, rippling the water alone.

There is always a danger of mystifying the past with ephemeral evidence this gorgeous, but it would be foolhardy to think the invocatory power of these photographs is purely the invention of contemporary eyes — if anything, the images restore the spiritual sense in which photography is called a medium. The believers are transfigured by God’s light, the photograph by the world’s.

The cameraperson typically shoots from an opposite bank, offering a broad scene. Crowds are in the dozens, if not hundreds, draping bridges and packing every jut of land. The principle pictorial advantage of this framing is the emphasis it places on the water’s reflection. The reverse image coasting the water’s surface rhymes with the one produced by the camera’s lens. More immediately, this reflection gives the impression of ghosts. In his introduction, Luc Sante makes the point that many of these sites were so used for generations, and therefore "accrued layers of association and sentiment." Ghosts were to be expected.

Because the scope of the photographs frequently exceed the camera’s depth of field, surrounding space buckles to the distant baptism’s sharp focus. Time itself seems to bend around this point of clarity and calm. The person being baptized is most deeply submerged, making their reflections the clearest ones. Much of what the photographs communicate, then, is the way these baptisms were both public events and private passages. The individual is simultaneously a part of and apart from the community, in the same way death is to life.

Nearly all those pictured in Take Me to the Water have since crossed to the other side — the passage of time is there in the splotches and creases. The poignancy of these imperfections is that they remind us that the photographs belonged to people, as mementos. In one, a pen marking indicates one of many figures in the water — someone’s relation. Beauty balancing the ordinary and sublime is a strange gift indeed. The wonder isn’t that these photographs survived, but that they existed in the first place.