Photoshopping History

With today’s photography tools, my face can be replaced with yours. If a blemish appears, it can be retouched. If the flowers look bedraggled, I can renew them with digital fresh flowers.

Recently after the hanging of an exhibit of historical church photos, my friends and I saw that blackface masks were decorating the back wall in one picture. The 1960’s photograph is of a band called the Pantomime Band or PB. Two men are in drag, with faces painted like mimes. Musicians and singers are wearing red stripped blouses and shirts. They have skimmers on their heads. The PB Band possibly didn’t actually play their instruments but pretended, or mimed, using recorded music.

The purpose of the band was playful, innocuous, designed as a fun way to kick off a church campaign for annual pledges. They only “played” for two nights.

“Is that Lenny in drag?” Asked my friend. Eighty-eight years old, she remembers people who have long since departed. ‘

“Look, there’s Joe!” Said someone.

“No, that can’t be Joe. That’s Joe’s dad.”

The band’s photograph, resized and enhanced, had been touched many times, framed by the members of the church art board, and hung. No one had said anything about the five small masks in the picture—until after every photo had been hung and workers were cleaning up.

“That’s black face! You can’t hang this! You’ve got to take it down!”

I backed up. I think I said, “Noooo” as in “We can’t remove this photo; it’s necessary” mixed with “Oh no, how did I miss that. Let’s photoshop it.”

I don’t think he heard me. “Look, we have to take this one down. It’s black face,” he called out.

“What is it?” Asked my venerable friend, followed by a cacophony of five voices in unison.

“Oh no! It has to come down/Photoshop it out/It will have to come down/I didn’t see it/You can’t have this up/People will be upset/What will we do?/Take it down!”

“I’ll do it,” said a photographer.

“What?”

“Photoshop it, erase them.”

And so, it was done. The digital photo with its masks on the wall was “shopped” and reprinted and placed over the original photo in its frame on the wall.

What are the philosophical implications of erasing historical documentation, even in a local photo?

In the 1960s’s in the United States, Martin Luther King and others were insisting on equal protection under the law, an end to separate but equal. An awakening of sensitivity to racism was on the rise, but probably not to the level to cause a small group at a Kentucky church to realize that black face as a stage decoration would offend viewers forty years later.

My husband joked, “I’m bothered by men in drag. I want those two queens erased.” We laughed. But men dressed in drag, pretending to be queens, could offend a transgender person, as in They were making fun of me and my people—Even if dressing in drag was considered comical at the time in the 60’s when transgender people were usually hidden and commonly ridiculed, before the rainbow movement arose, before people understood being gay or transgender to be a biological, natural fact of life.

Our collective memory of making fun of queer people cannot be erased, anymore than our memory of symbols of latent racial insensitivity like black face masks, separate water fountains, and the back of the bus.

A divorcee, resenting the over-large family portrait above her mantle, glued Abraham Lincoln’s face over her ex-husband’s face. We are amused by her act of defiance. She knows she had children with the man, ate breakfast with him, argued over the thermostat, put away his shoes. Covering his face emphasizes the irony of her situation.

It is impossible to know the inside story behind the masks in the Pantomime Band photograph since the only record we have is the original photograph of friends having a jolly good time pretending to be a band for a Christian fundraiser. They might have looked for mime masks but instead found black face ones. Hanging them was an Oh well what the heck choice.

History can be redacted, rewritten, omitted from new editions. Would an erasure be misunderstood, over time? Our photoshopped photo, with its masks removed sits on top of the original. It will be discovered someday. Someone might notice and be puzzled. Would the truth matter?

Maybe in 2019 the church didn’t want to advertise its 1960’s insensitivities. Or maybe someone objected to the black face masks. Either option could be true. Would one option be more acceptable than the other? Imagine someone thinking, They were ashamed of their racism, when in actuality five people feared black face masks in the original photograph would disturb a parishioner or visitor. To erase was a politically correct move, which might be interpreted as morally objectionable by a historian. The erasure choice is sensible within one context, but possibly disturbing and misunderstood in another situation and time.

If the image erased had been two water fountains side by side, one labeled “White” and the other “Colored” as if to erase our shame for waiting so long to come to our senses, someone would have said, “You can’t do that!”

Irony in history is like oxygen—everywhere.

One thought on “Photoshopping History

  1. After some research, Some folks determined that the masks were mime masks. I tend to agree; however, sensitivities run high these days, a Virginia governor under fire for an alleged photo of him in a black face costume next to a costumed KKK companion. Who exactly knows who is behind the masks or the context for the costuming. Were the actors mocking how we mask our identities? Performing an ironic display of opposition? Was it a yin and yang party? Evidence of endemic insensitive racial humor? Deeper, why would someone dig out an old photo to fuel an attack on a governor? In any case, my friends at the exhibit hanging chose the PC approach. Mime or black face —erase. No one wanted to cause a stir. DS

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