The Lonesome Train

‘My man so deep in trouble the white folks couldn’t get him free…’ Victoria Spivey, Christmas Morning Blues.

The spectacle of the American twentieth century could not be complete without its audience, without the presence of the onlookers. There they stand in Weegee’s photographs from New York, grabbing and pushing around the edges of crime scenes and accidents; there are the crazed grins on the faces of the lynch-mob; there is the delirium of ticker tape parades and sporting events, and again and again there is that look of rapt but empty attention. In his 1939 novel Day of the Locust, Nathanael West envisioned the power and demonic potential of the onlookers as his crowd of star-struck moviegoers, made ‘savage and bitter’ by ‘boredom and disappointment’, take their grim revenge at a Hollywood film premier. In this passage and in many other photographic and cinematic images the onlookers themselves become the subject, drawing the camera away and into their spell, one that so often strains a fine balance of power and control and threatens to bring another level of reality into being. Then during one day towards the end of the sixties, a decade in America already marked by violent public spectacle, the crowd quells for a moment into a new linear formation of elegiac reverence, it is temporarily quietened by the loss of a charmed but sad-eyed politician, who many believed ‘had died for them and because of them’.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 7, 2006
Commissioned by Photoworks

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