In these images Marion portrays one of the activities most associated with jooks: gambling. I think these are some of the most complicated images to analyze, or the most difficult to make a concrete argument about. Take, to begin with, the formal elements. They are shot from on top. They depict a circle that one is pretty sure is self-contained, finished. The circle, the gambling activity and the men engaging in it, fill the frames and make up the universe of the images. Now for the content... The tone of the men's attitudes is serious, engaged, in places just slightly intimidating. The main figure at the table whose face we can read is alternately staring intently at some other player or directing his attention towards the viewer with a gaze bordering on confrontational.
One of the reasons why the pictures feel as voyeuristic as they do is how they are framed; as a viewer, you feel as if you are practically leaning over the backs of the men at the table like some other hanger-on. Your gaze mimics the angle of everyone else's. You, along with the players and by-standers, face inward towards the action on the table. And yet you are not granted insider status; your's is a somewhat unsatisfying voyeurism. You are not let into the circle- in fact, the spot where you might fit in is already filled by someone else, whose back is to you. You can't quite see what's going on around his head and back. You are not welcome entirely. There's a tension or contradiction in your voyeurism. On the one hand you have a higher perspective, literally, than anyone else. You can see more of what is going on in that sense. On the other hand, everyone's backs are turned to you, you can't quite worm your way in to a place at the table.
If these images feel voyeuristic, if your (the viewer's) perspective feels somewhat privileged (if paradoxically so), this adds to the heightened aura of the images. It is so hard to know when we look at photographs like this how a contemporary viewer might have read them, or how much our reading is purely a choice to use an image to confirm our own associations. In a sense, this is what makes these shots an important photographic choice, though it may be dangerous to assign too much representative responsibility to the photographer. If we recognize an aura in a photograph, if it reminds us of a sort of scene we have already imagined somewhere in the recesses of our mind, then we know that both our minds and the photograph are participating in an important process of image-making, of identity-construction. To my eye, this photograph feels like a scene, has an attitude to it. How much am I reading that in? Hard to know. What if Marion had chosen to shoot the table from afar, from not quite a towering perspective, if she had chosen to include other people and other activities? What different effects would the images have had?
Take this image of a game of checkers, shot outside. When taken from a distance, with the surroundings as much a subject as the game, it all feels less dramatic, heightened. There is an aura to these skin game images, in their closed-offness, in how the circles fill the frames, declaring their own importance as a subject of observance, in how our perspective is torn between insight and blindness.
Because gambling was so actively associated with jook joints and carried such a reputation of marginality, the tone Marion chose to give the episodes she depicted could either reinforce or expand the cloud of associations hovering above such a scene. That these images fall into the conventions of representation for black jook joint activity, (excitingly dangerous, marginal, filled with attitude) may tell us more about the temptations of making colorful images, portraying colorful scenes, then about Marion's conscious intentions about black representation.
Juliet Gorman, May 2001
When you've checked out all the photographs, you may want explore the history of Belle Glade, the area where they were taken.
You also might want to fill in your reading with some background on what jook joints are about.