Looking Back

Amy Elkins

January 1, 2015

Alexander Gardner, Lewis Payne, 1865

Alexander Gardner, Lewis Payne, 1865

We asked photographer Amy Elkinsto tell us about a picture that meant something to her, and why. Elkins is the winner of the 2014 Aperture Portfolio Prize. Her series “Parting Words” and “Black is the Day, Black is the Night” are on view at Aperture Gallery through January 29, 2015.


I stumbled across this photograph in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida when I was in my first year as an undergrad at the School of Visual Arts. It haunted me briefly but soon got lost in the dense nature of the book. It also got buried by my own sheer excitement and love for the vast amount of images and image-makers surrounding me in New York, all of which felt new to me. Not only was I new to the city, I was relatively in the dark when it came to many of the photographers with whom I would later fall deeply in love. As a portrait photographer, I was mesmerized by the potency oozing out of August Sander’s photographs of young soldiers, fraternity members, artists, and widowers; Rineke Dijkstra’s adolescent bathers, new mothers, and bullfighters; Richard Avedon’s portraits of The American West; or Fazal Sheikh’s refugees…. and on and on. Selecting a single significant image was quite difficult.

Back to the photograph at hand. This was not an image that was discussed in school, and it was not easily found. Even Barthes, in Camera Lucida, merely grazed on it. It wasn’t until years later that the image presented itself to me again. This time, it held me captive; it had a much richer meaning, as I was in the midst of a project that had me writing about men on death row, two of whom were executed in the five-year span of the project. This time I paid attention to far more detail in the photograph – the expression, the gaze, the body language, and the light… all so striking. But much more so upon discovering that this portrait was taken of a man who would soon die, and who knew it. He looked utterly calm, which could be interpreted endlessly and made the image all the more fascinating to me.

The caption of the photograph, by Alexander Gardner, read “Lewis Payne, seated and manacled, at the Washington Navy Yard about the time of his 21st birthday in April 1865, three months before he was hanged as one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.”