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Down to the River

Take me to the Water: River Baptism Photographs
Negro Baptizing Scene, Greenville, Miss., 1920s by Curt Teich & Co.. Source: icp.org
Curt Teich & Co., "Negro Baptizing Scene, Greenville, Miss., 1920s"

The charm and fascination of historical photographs continue to engage in this quirky exhibit at ICP. While all photographs are historical because of the medium’s fundamental connection to time, those that deal with our collective history are particularly interesting. Even ones, such as these, which might well have been staged, are rooted in the past and all that nostalgia implies.

Moreover the specific content of these photographs, many of which were created for postcards, holds special social and anthropological interest. River baptisms, practiced by both blacks and whites in the rural South, are themselves archaic throwbacks to pagan practices, invoking the ancient symbolisms of water as life-giver and river as life itself, making them meaningful as modern recreations of primitive ceremonials.

[River baptism, Pibel, Nebraska] by Unidentified Photographer. Source: icp.org
Unidentified Photographer, "[River baptism, Pibel, Nebraska]" 1913

Underscoring these archetypal folk memories are modern literary ones, as it is impossible to look at these pictures and not think of Huck and Jim on the Mississippi. Then there is the curious fact that they were marketed as mementos and tourist trinkets, thereby compounding the sincerity of rural belief with the cynicism of carpetbagger profiteering. A very American mix, at that.

Finally these pictures invite you to think about the persistent presence of fundamentalist religion in America, its tenacious hold over the minds of a population only a psychological half step away from the superstitions of peasant life.

Unlike many of the larger exhibits at ICP. and elsewhere, this unpretentious show rewards attention, offering multiple ways of viewing images with both visual and intellectual content.


Take me to the Water: River Baptism Photographs


International Center of Photography
1133 Ave of the Americas
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212 857 0000
icp.org

Friday, January 21 to
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Hours: Tues - Sun, 10 to 6; Fri to 8
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery