This post is excerpted from the essay “Twoness: Photography on the Color Line” by Shawn Michelle Smith in The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900. The exhibition The Double is on view July 10–October 31, 2022.
In the black-and-white photograph, two men face the camera directly, staring back at viewers. They appear to be identical twins, standing shoulder to shoulder, dressed formally in matching black jackets, white shirts, and silk ties. They are photographed from the chest up, and light pulls them out of the surrounding darkness, glinting off their thick dark hair, which has been parted on the side and brushed down rather severely. Their expressions are neutral, but their eyes are shining.
This is Rashid Johnson’s The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett) (2008), and upon closer examination, one discerns that the photograph is not actually of twins but of one man, doubled. The two images in the frame are reflections of one another — the man and his mirror image placed side by side. It is as if the photographer has made a double exposure by flipping the negative, exposing it once and then turning it over to expose its inverse. As viewer, it is impossible to discern which is the “original” and which is its inverted duplicate, and in this way the image highlights the confounding ontology of reproducible photography, the copy without an original. . . .
Johnson’s The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club imagines a men's society modeled after a nineteenth-century fraternity with Afrofuturist sensibilities. The series comprises portraits of men who represent historical African American figures such as Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, and Emmett Till. . . .
(Emmett) stands out in Johnson’s series in a number of ways. The image is striking in its sharpness, which has not been softened by atmospheric smoke. The figure is doubled but not overlapping; there is no visual interference in either of the paired images. Both faces stare directly out at the viewer, seeking a returned gaze, a recognition, and perhaps a reckoning.
(Emmett) points to the historical doubling of images of its named subject, Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old African American youth from Chicago who was brutally murdered while visiting his great uncle in Money, Mississippi, in the summer of 1955. . . . At the insistence of Mamie Bradley, Till's mother, her son's body was shipped back to Chicago for burial. . . . [In Jet magazine on September 5, 1955,] an earlier photograph of Bradley and Till together, smiling at the camera, was set beside one of [David] Jackson’s close-up photographs of the corpse showing Till’s horribly mutilated face. The effect of the pairing was to create a sickening double portrait of Till, both alive and dead.
Today it is difficult to remember Till outside of this visual doubling. The two images are forever conjoined. Bradley felt compelled to “make the whole world see” the evidence of the violence perpetrated against her son. . . . The paired photographs of Till incited outrage and inspired African Americans to action, galvanizing the growing civil rights movement in the United States. The images crystalized not only the historic force of lynching’s cultural logic, but also the power of photography to incite political action.
Johnson’s doubled portrait (Emmett) evokes the infamous paired photographs of Emmett Till that shocked viewers in 1955, but in place of that brutal pairing of before (alive) and after (dead) images, Johnson offers two images of “Emmett” that mirror one another, identical except for their inversion. He has suspended Till alive in the time before and after his murder, recalling but also refusing the crime and the photographic evidence of its aftermath. Johnson's work does not repeat the image of Till’s destruction at the hands of white men; instead it reproduces an image of “Emmett” alive and thriving with those who love him. Johnson does not reduce Till to the images that captured his demise, nor to the white supremacist estimation that placed so little value on his life. But this refusal is not an act of erasure. The doubling and naming of the portrait clearly reference the historical figure Emmett Till, and the way his murder has been memorialized in US visual culture, through paired photographs.
You can see the The Double exhibition at the National Gallery through October 31.