Take Me To The Water – Photographs of River Baptisms
“You would have to have a heart of tin not to recognize this as one of the happiest collections of archival photographs ever assembled.”
Luc Sante in Take Me To The Water.
Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1990.
It may be that I have a heart of tin. Or it may be that this small selection of postcards and lithographs is so riddled with complexities, ambiguities and mysteries that I am uncertain how to begin addressing them all.
First exhibited at the ICP in New York in 2011, the images depict one of the very few public religious rituals in the US, the tradition of river baptisms. The works on show were largely derived from the collection of Janna Rosenkranz and Jim Linderman, who donated their holdings to the ICP in 2007. The exhibition focused especially on river baptisms practiced in the Deep South and Mid-West between 1880 and 1930.
But upon first perusing the images constituting Take Me To The Water, they reminded me of something altogether more sinister. A hint of that is found in the 2009 publication of the same name, containing photographs of river baptisms and vintage recordings of folk and gospel songs. The context to one of them indicates: “This song was created to accompany the rite of baptism, but Harriet Tubman used it to communicate to fugitive [slaves] escaping to the North that they be sure to ‘wade in the water’ in order to throw bloodhounds off their scent.”
Jim Linderman mentions in his introduction to the book that James Allen’s publication Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America inspired him to start collecting images of river baptisms. And this is what triggered my recollection, as compositionally the photographs are very similar. Both sets of images show public rituals: one in which a black person is condemned to a gruesome death turned into a spectacle – usually on the pretext of a perceived or manufactured slight to a white fellow citizen – whereas the other documents a life-affirming religious rebirth validated by its very public expression of faith.
Because of this association, the images leave a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. I also find the marketisation of these public rituals – religious or otherwise – troublesome. Looking into the backgrounds of the photographers and the publishing companies behind these river baptism postcards, I stumbled on a nascent history of capitalism, tourism, printing and publishing.
As one correspondent of the cards tells her daughter Louise: “We just got these pictures recently. Mr. Black has had such a demand for them.” But how can one reconcile an often very moving and life-defining experience with the cashing in on the moment by means of photography? Who initially buys these postcards and for what reason? Susan Sontag in her seminal publication On Photography touches on some possible answers:
“Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors.”
But proof only works when it is offered up to a willing audience. However, most of the postcards included in this portfolio are left blank. They were never used, never written upon, never sent out. What is the point of undergoing a rite of passage, of witnessing and capturing the spectacle of it, if the experience is not seen and shared as widely as possible?
The empty postcards thus left me rather cold. Redemption, however, became possible for those inscribed upon. The images came alive with the words of the senders to the recipients. Jon is told that “we are in this picture,” and it leaves me pondering where exactly the correspondents are situated in the photograph. Are they about to be dunked in the water by the preacher? Are they standing on the river bank? Are they true believers? Are they ogling tourists?
Meanwhile, Florence is informed that “the second girl from [the] left hand is Myrtle.” Is she the woman in the white dress, waiting for her turn to be baptised? Or is she hiding amongst the onlookers crowding the bridge? Leo in the meantime exhorts Katherine to go and see a river baptism one day, and Delia tells Maud that all are well and the meeting closed last night.
It is through their words that we get to somewhat know the participants in these rituals, be they candidates or onlookers. Or in the words of Annie to her cousin: “I met Sister Belle Imhoff of Waterloo, Iowa. She said she had met you and I almost felt I had met you when she told me.” And it is through Annie’s words that the spectacle finally redeems itself: “Wish you could have been there, to receive the spiritual blessings which we cannot express.”
An abridged version of this essay was previously published in Foam Magazine #50 ‘Water.’
All images from the series Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms (1890–1920), courtesy of International Center of Photography, New York.