Vintage river baptism photo exhibition

 Articles Wp-Content Uploads 2011 01 Invitefrontcrop Next week, an exhibition of river baptism photos, titled Take Me To The Water, opens at New York City's International Center of Photography. The heyday of this ritual, and the majority of the photos, are from the 1880s-1930s. Apparently, photographs of the rites were made into postcards popular among the family of the baptized person and also tourists visiting the South and Midwest where the river baptisms were most popular. The photos in the exhibit were donated to the Center by Jim Linderman, whose collection was also the basis for the 2010 Grammy-nominated book and CD package "Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950." (That book/CD was designed and published by Dust-to-Digital, makers of the phenomenal Goodbye, Babylon gospel box set and other top-notch historical music packages.) Over at Collectors Weekly, Linderman posts about his collection and the collector's spirit:
Collecting anything is fun–somehow any group of objects always equals more than the sum of its parts. Personally, I prefer groups of three. That’s enough to show differences and similarities at the same time.

Over the course of 10 years, I collected every photograph I could find of people participating in the ritual of immersion baptism. Most of these original vintage photographs are pre-1950. Many are Real Photo Postcards, which is the focus of the exhibition, but there are numerous large albumens, too. One is a yard long and shows hundreds of spectators watching a mass baptism. It’s quite a spectacle, and one of the show’s centerpieces. Initially, I found my baptism photos at flea markets and such. If I spotted one while browsing through boxes and baskets of photographs, I treated it like a prize and filed it away at home...

The point is that I collected in a very narrow field with a particular, specific project in mind. This can be done by anyone! I always tell my friends to pick one area and collect it relentlessly.

"Total Immersion Collecting: Baptism Photos" (Collectors Weekly)

"Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950" (Amazon)

Jim Linderman's blogs at Dull Toll Dim Bulb and Vintage Sleaze


  1. I have always wondered if baptism was derived from the mikveh concept of immersing a person in a sufficiently large body of water to invalidate tumah(incorrectly translated as uncleaness) or if it is pagan in origin.

    1. Well, I’m no Biblical scholar. . .but ol’ John the Baptist was doing his thing back in the day; figure it had to be Hebraic, yes? Then Jesus and friends took that ball and ran with it. . .

      But them pagans, those smarties did everything first. . .

  2. When I saw the river baptism photos, I thought the same thing! I found some linkages discussed online but I wonder if it’s as direct a connection (mikveh —> baptism) as it seems.

    1. With the amount of input from Emperor Constantine and Rome in general prior to the canonization of the Christian scriptures I wonder. I assume it is an extension of the Jewish mikveh immersion which among other more regular uses is taken at the end of the process should a gentile decide to fully convert and become a regular Jew rather than following the much simpler moral laws for gentiles.
      Is there a mikveh concept elsewhere? It comes up in yeshiva talmud study of tumah and tahara mostly related to Cohens and temple service, new eating ware not made by Jews, conversion, and womens reproductive events. In temple times it was a nearly daily thing for people and objects who encountered tumah although today it is still regular among hasidim.

  3. I have to find that Grammy CD. . .though the title made me think of Billy Bass singing ‘take me to the river, drop me in the water’ and Tony Soprano smashing him. . .

    Then of course the beautiful song by Alison Krauss and the baptism scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou. . .(one of my top 10 movies btw)

    Also reminding me of the recent Boardwalk Empire when that nutcase FBI agent ‘baptised’ his co-worker among the Black folks. . .

    Obviously I need to increase my education on this matter. Thanks!

    1. This makes me think of the Toadies song Backslider…

      I was baptized in the river by my father, our congregation’s preacher.

      Of course it didn’t take, so I became a Backslider.

      True story.

    Well that’s it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting’s my reward!

    Delmar what the hell are you talking about? – We got bigger fish to fry-

    Preacher said my sins are warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!

    I thought you said you were innocent a those charges.

    Well I was lyin’ – and I’m proud to say that that sin’s been warshed away too! Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now! Come on in, boys, the water’s fine!

  5. I wonder if it’s as direct a connection (mikveh —> baptism) as it seems.

    The custom of Christian baptism is part of the tradition of emulating Jesus Christ, who you might recall was baptized in the river Jordan by the Prophet John (John the Baptist, whose head was later delivered on a platter to Salome by Herod Antipas, not John of the Revelation or the apostle John).

    I took a glance at the wikipedia articles on John the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ and they fit my knowledge of Christianity, so I will commend you there rather than discoursing redundantly here. I think you are familiar with the Golden Bough so you’ll recognized some of the themes!

    I would be very interested to learn more about the practice of mikveh.

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