Thursday, September 16, 2010

An Asterisk

An asterisk alerts the reader to additional material. For example, early books on connoisseurship contain an asterisk or two along the side of the page, thereby performing the function of a footnote and inviting the reader to gloss material elsewhere on the page (marginalia or footer content). While this is a very helpful (and neutral) function performed by the asterisk, more often than not, this symbol connotes a fall from grace. The little character deposited above the "8" key on your computer has maimed the records of baseball legends as much as it has destroyed the credibility of celebrated artists. Here, I am thinking of Mark McGwire and Pete Rose as well as Shepard Fairey and Damien Hirst. Now, the New York Times wants to add Ernest Withers to that list of notorious figures with an * next to their names.

Marc Perrusquia, writing for the
Commercial Appeal out of Memphis, broke the story earlier this week that the photographer passed images and information on to the FBI. He was an informant, assigned a number (indicating his regular services for the government), and was paid for his services. He spied on fellow Americans. Despite this, The Commerical Appeal notes, "It's uncertain what impact the revelation will have on Withers' legacy. The photographer was lionized in the final years of his life. Four books of his photography were published, exhibits of his work made international tours and a building on Beale Street was named for him. Congressman Steve Cohen proposed a yet-unfunded $396,000 earmark for a museum, set to open next month, to preserve Withers' archives."

Scrolling through the photo gallery on the website, it's difficult not to be moved by Withers' photography. But, unlike McGwire, Rose, Fairey, Hirst, and the laundry list of others who have had asterisks appended to their names, Withers' asterisk does not -- or, in my view, should not --- impact our recognition of his role as a keen photographer, a social documenter, and a person with visual acuity that is unmatchable. A second difference between Withers and those who bear the asterisk like a Scarlet Letter is that Withers is unable to defend himself against those who are eager to put that asterisk in place at the end of his name. He died in 2007 at the age of 85, having seen so much in his life.

Thanks to his images, which serve as testament to his role as a bold recorder of the past, we have the potential to keep the events of Civil Rights Movement within our purview. For this, I remain, even, a grateful beneficiary of Withers' life and work--asterisk or not.

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