Monday, September 27, 2010

Reconciling Ernest Withers, and Other Flawed Heroes

Withers's famous 1968 photo of Memphis sanitation workers
 For the past week or so I've been following the news stories about Ernest C. Withers, the photographer famed for intimately documenting the segregated South and the civil rights movement. His "I Am A Man" photograph, showing a demonstration by Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, stands as a landmark in documentary photography.
    As we know now, because of a two-year investigation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Withers was also an FBI informant.
    How do we reconcile those two Ernest Withers: The intimate of Dr. Martin Luther King and the FBI confidential informant coded as ME 338-R?
    What do we think now when we see his pictures? Do the facts of a journalist or artist's life change what we have come to understand as the intent of his or her work?
    Huge, huge questions. I'm puzzled and will be for a long, long time. You?
    The New York Times poked around the issue in the essay on artistic intent that it ran yesterday. Focusing on the Withers issue, it went to a few curators and historians for opinions and neatly set out some opposing views. The Times article quoted Deborah Willis, chair of the photography and imaging department at New York University, who knew and was mentored by Withers. She said "the photographs, I believe, will prevail; it doesn't change the images."  Brett Abbott, curator of an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles called "Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties," said however that the news about Withers's work for the FBI "might prompt some scholars to sift back through...Withers's work to re-evaluate it...."
     Actually I'm wondering whether the question about Withers's photographic legacy is as important as the question about Withers the secret agent. How can you evaluate the one without understanding the other?
    A couple of generations of photographers came of age with the deepest regard for Withers—a regard that went beyond professional admiration, beyond his work. I found this lovely memoir by the thoughtful and talented Eric Meola, and after reading it I found myself wondering if we are nurtured by the work our heroes do or the lives they lead, and the struggle we inevitably feel when heroes betray.
    After I read the Times article yesterday, I looked up the obit the paper ran in 2007 when Withers died. Was there some fact there that would help explain why he chose to lead a double life? Was it interesting that Withers worked for three years as one of the first nine Afrian-American police officers in Memphis? Who can connect the dots of a man's life? Perhaps a historian; more likely a novelist—someone like John le Carre, a specialist in matters of men who live double lives. Things often end badly in his books.

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