The Afterlife of George Floyd: A Portfolio by Photographer Eli Reed – The Cut

Posted: June 17, 2020 at 12:59 am

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

It is a beautiful symmetry to have Eli Reeds photographs capture and canonize this American chapter and George Floyds funeral. Reed is one of the best living photographers and is walking history himself; he is the first Black photographer to join Magnum Photos and is a member of Kamoinge, the Black photography collective that has in its DNA Roy DeCarava, a founding father of black-and-white fine photography.

The images are something, as they say down South, perhaps even more so because George Floyd is so present and absent from them. Where is he? Its just as well that Floyd be in absentia, in a sense, from a photo series about him. Find George Floyd, the human, the person who unsuspectingly became a symbol, the father, the man who called out for his mother as he lay dying. Reeds photos arent the expected intimacy of a funerals mise-en-scne with the casket and Floyds family like that of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King but it is hard to find a real reason why America would have deserved that kind of record for the ages anyway. In lieu of photographing Floyd, Reeds camera tenderly captures the minutiae of people, in the middle of a pandemic, social collapse, and a revolution, willing themselves to bear witness.

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

The iconography of George Floyds death begins, in the modern sense, in the lynching postcards of the early 20th century. They are a perverse picture of Americana; they are souvenirs from the scenes of murders. Like the leather wallets and belts fashioned from human skin afterwards, these postcards were first and foremost evidence of many things murder, the unhinged fantasies of White subconsciousness that have long been anchored in the idea of a Black chattel class and a belief in the unalienable right to act out that role play. That a reminder of that kind of unforgettable horror could even be necessary or even desired is an indication of what has long not been well with White America, and for quite some time; Lillian Smith, a Georgia native who framed White supremacy as a mental illness, wrote in Killers of the Dream, These ceremonials in honor of white supremacy slip from the conscious mind down deep into the muscles. James Baldwin put it more explicitly: And they have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are White.

Video is not infinite, but it is the strongest contender in humankinds constant quest to conquer the infinite in real time. In its cruel loopability and limitless excess, what is immortality if not an excess of everything? Everything becomes excessive on video: the length, the audience, the distribution, the distortion, the filters. America has met its match. America has found a medium capable of showing her to herself without tiring and with the matched coldness and unrelenting brutality with which America has always treated Black people.

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Perhaps this helps explain why the last moments of Black life on video have found an audience and momentum to catalyze protest and people in our contemporary times. That objectivity and excess of video have distilled the core of the moment in a way few mediums can: The combination of free-range prerogative and unhinged fantasies of White people has long been at the center of these murders and subjugations. The person and the body may be Black, but they are not the subject. Its what makes Emmett Tills body so difficult to look at; it is not him, it is not Mamies child.It is the site of an imagination, deranged, it is the deadly narcissism of Whitenesss desires as bluntly as the point can be made, and infinitely as need be. Watching Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyds neck for eight minutes is truly unhinged, and we are watching him enact the same fantasy that his forefathers stood proudly for in photographs when Black bodies were swinging from poplar trees. Video does not tire, and as such on a cellular level, we know America and we know that we will see another Black person die on video again. And that has absolutely nothing to do with Black people.

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

And so, it is in this weird moment between the slight beginnings of a White reckoning and the evermore Black activism that has always been this countrys moral North Star that the afterlife of George Floyd begins.

He is a child of Texas, a son of Houstons Third Ward, Cissy Floyds firstborn, and as the sun set on June 9, 2020, he returned to them. Watching the procession of Floyds horse drawn recalled Ossie Daviss eulogy for Malcolm X: and we will know him then for what he was and is a prince. Indeed, Floyds homecoming was fit for a king; this has always been the visual thesis of African-American funerary, especially when someone has been stolen from us. The horse-drawn carriage, the gold casket, the choir, the Appian Way procession of the last mile to his grave; George Floyd was given a state funeral by the people, his people.

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

For it is in the visuals and the iconography of the homecoming so called by enslaved people because they believed, upon death, their soul would return to Africa that the person, the human, the humanity reemerges. The last moments of Black life under the duress of unpoliced imaginations, to paraphrase Claudia Rankine, have very little to do with Black life. And if the afterlife is a journey that is filled with abundance, beauty, and absent of all the ignorant, cruel, and dull things that make this physical one at times unbearable, it would make sense that the beginnings of the Black afterlife have absolutely nothing to do with White people. And yet, it is also never not complicated and complex; the Houston Police Department escorted his cortege on its final journey. Make of that what you will.

The visual foundation of Floyds afterlife incorporates themes of majesty, splendor, and nobility that are a deeply historical call-and-response to Blackness in funerary and the afterlife across time. It recalls the ancient Egyptians, New Orleanss jazz funerals, the funeral pageantry of West African tribes, Geechee and Lowcountry funerals, the work of photographer James Van Der Zee and the promised abundance of the upper room in works such as Alma Thomass painting Resurrection. Floyd returned home to the very specific African-Creole corridor of East Texas and Western Louisiana is worth considering. Here, his iconography and afterlife begins in one of the most stunning ancestral regions for African-Americans and one of the most infamously racist. A place from which the most desperate domestic refugees fled and still, to this day, flee up North for a different type of racism. Floyd himself had fled up North, to Minneapolis, like Mamie Till went up to Chicago. Further east, Emmett Tills afterlife had its beginnings in this corridor too in the Mississippi Delta in the Tallahatchie River, to be exact.

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Where is George Floyd? How do we find him? We have no clue how and where he will settle in history, art history, how his last moments will enter a canon of filmed death. What we are looking for, beyond the momentum of canonization and movement, is him. Those intimate, quotidian, and mundane things which begrudgingly and solemnly construct a life and ones work in it. Who will replace his hello to the people who are used to seeing him every day? If he is that person in the neighborhood who takes out the trash for the elderly women who live alone on the block, who will take his place? Who will lead George Floyds Bible studies or be the gentle giant in the barbershop, on the block, and at the corner store? How do a community and a family replace what is irreplaceable? Reeds photographs began looking for these unanswerable questions.

His images recall the tenderness and difficulty of a watercolor portrait. A watercolor portrait is a small miracle; a painter must work quickly, with sustained velocity and controlled chaos, to bend the fluidity of water and the subjects essence to reveal something luminous, telling, and coherent. Maybe it is the same mastery of application at work here; Reeds camera captures the uncapturable, what it meant to be in the sticky humidity of that Houston evening that smelled like grief, mosquito repellent, candle wax, and cedar wood. For those not there, Reeds work acts as a bridge to translate the mourning, the prayer circles, the enormous and quotidian worries of those there the traffic afterwards, if the chicken left in the sink had fully thawed by the time they got home, if something calamitous would happen on the way back, what would happen now to Georges family, now that he was in the ground and the real shattering, breaking, and healing (maybe) begins. The luminosity of the human experience is here in the artists offering to George Floyd, a lion in the winter of his years who has captured wars at home and abroad, still working, this time in the looming discontent of Juneteenth, a plague, and the knocking knees of an empire in collapse. Somewhere in there is a radical love, a belief that George is still owed more, that Black people are deserving of more and that they must have it, and they must have it yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Like watercolors, the fervency of this simple truth is hard to capture. It is that love for, and of, and by Black people at the very root of it all which propels the people to the street, prepared to die if it should come down to it. And it is because, like Ossie Davis said of Malcolm, they love us so.

It is, as they say down South, truly something.

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Photo: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

The one story you shouldn't miss today, selected byNew York's editors.

Continue reading here:

The Afterlife of George Floyd: A Portfolio by Photographer Eli Reed - The Cut

Related Post