“I hope we don’t have crowds in here,” says Andrew Roth, looking over the stacks of old postcards, grainy, stained, and creased but preserved in Plexiglas, waiting to be edited in the Roth Horowitz gallery on East 70th Street. In the age of “Sensation,” that’s an unusual sentiment from a gallery owner, but “Witness: Photographs of Lynchings From the Collection of James Allen” is an unusually disturbing exhibit. The photographs, which document mob lynchings carried out between the late 1800s and 1960, were manufactured as postcards that became morbid souvenirs recording the suffering of black victims and the carnivorous complicity of the white mob. On the back of one, which depicts the charred, dangling corpse of a black man surrounded by a score of gawking white faces, a proud participant wrote in flowing cursive: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son Joe.”
“I feel strongly about the material,” says Roth, a slight, bearded man who speaks with the measured care of a scholar. “I feel strongly about it being seen. This is a show about humanity.” Roth, who owns the gallery with rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz, admits that he and Horowitz have considered the possibility that the exhibit will attract charges of exploitation, or, worse, racism. When the photographs are this gruesome and racially charged, good intentions alone are not a sufficient defense. To provide context, Roth is carefully including anti-lynching material and books by African-Americans in the show. (Although the vast majority of the victims were black, a small number were white; one picture documents the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew.) “I happen to be white and Jewish,” says Roth. “I happen to have a space on the Upper East Side. But nothing in this show is for sale. I’m not making this exhibit for profit. We know that we open ourselves up to that kind of criticism. And if worst comes to worst, I will close it.”
The exhibit coincides with the publication of a book by Twin Palms Publishers that includes the photographs as well as essays by New Yorker writer Hilton Als, Georgia congressman John Lewis, historian Leon Litwack, and James Allen, the Atlanta antiques dealer who began collecting the postcards ten years ago.
Roth argues that “Witness” belongs in the genre of other controversial photo exhibits that depict national atrocities, such as the recently postponed show at the Cooper Union of German soldiers’ war crimes in World War II and the collection, exhibited in 1997 at moma, of Khmer Rouge photographs of Cambodians about to be killed during the seventies genocide. The postcards, he says, are the most disturbing objects he has ever encountered.
“These are not just photographs of atrocities,” Roth says quietly. “These are spectacles, events. People came to watch them. I am photographically literate. I’ve seen a lot. But I have never seen something like this.”