The essays in this book concern photographs made and viewed from the 1940s to the present, a time that transformed race relations globally and in the United States and that radically changed the meaning and practice of photography. Each essay here probes a moment when photography – as documentary, photojournalism, or art – intervened decisively on behalf of people of color. My intention has been selective rather than comprehensive; I view the work discussed here as innovative in not only acknowledging but also challenging formations of racism in its time, and distinguished in its enduring influence and its presence in visual discourse today. My method has been to define and distinguish these instances of immediate challenge and eventual transcendence by situating the work deeply in its historical circumstances.
The works discussed here are intentionally public images, their interventions different from the many photographs that did not “resemble or please white folks’ ideas about us” which bell hooks memorably encountered among the “walls of [informal] images” in southern black homes.1 The ambitious, professional photography that is my subject emerged in print and on gallery walls as an element of the “racial break,” as sociologist Howard Winant has called the midcentury aggregation of world-historical events that weakened racist laws, governments, and customs at the same time that visual mass communication and consumer culture expanded.2 The pressure of the “break,” persisting throughout the twentieth century, opened cultural space for Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s 12 Million Black Voices, Ebony magazine, Roy DeCarava’s art photography, televised Civil Rights Movement coverage, and other representations of modern black subjectivity. They are now well established in the global discourses constituted by art, photojournalism, and documentary.
However, this book is scarcely a celebration of racial progress. Rather, its history testifies, over and over, to the determining force of racism on black photography – to its constraints enforcing acknowledgement of white supremacy, to its assumptions denying agency and complexity in the work. It may signify progress to affirm, as I do, that today a larger number of images by and of people of color circulate in global visual discourse; and to suggest that artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker and others work under fewer race-related, and gender-related, constraints than did earlier generations. However, to chronicle these advances, which are partial, indirect, and far from absolute, is also to study the opposition that partly determined them.
The method I developed in earlier work on social documentary photography has been useful here, even though most of the images in this book represent other genres. As Weems points out, in the West the “black body presence articulates, by its very nature … a resistance. Whether that is my intention or not doesn’t matter, but my presence is a disruption and a reminder of something that has happened in …American culture”(Chapter 8). In other words, because race, or racialization, is always political, black photography3– its conception, existence, and circulation – is likewise ineluctably a political act, enmeshed in the history and politics of its times. Much, although, of course, not everything, that interests us in these pictures gains clarity in historical context. Historical perspective can show that images may have appeared – and meant – very differently to viewers in the past; that they may be produced by multiple forces and bear the traces of many hands; that they express at once individual subjectivity and collective ideology; and, of course, that images can be potent social forces. History also foregrounds the forces of imagination and creativity, often exerted in isolation and with difficulty. Admiring the powerful imagination and intricate execution that vivify Roy DeCarava’s images, each, he said, an “illusion complete within itself,” we need to know that his work was published first in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, selected by Langston Hughes to accompany his narrative of Harlem life. Though appreciative, DeCarava acknowledged that the small volume created “a slight detour in my development because I don’t like themes in terms of photography” (Chapter 5).
Like Flypaper, much of the work discussed here is collaborative, including 12 Million Black Voices; the photojournalism of Ebony magazine and of Gordon Parks; Emory Douglas’s Black Panther newspaper graphics, and even Danny Lyon’s studies of SNCC workers – made “because I had studied history, made because I loved to make them, made under direction from [James] Forman and the office” to help “create a public image for SNCC”(Chapter 7). As Lyon suggests, photographs comes into being for many reasons and appear in many forms; to understand closely the discursive and material circumstances of their origins does not lessen appreciation of their distinction and complexity. And such understanding can only enhance our responses to less individually impressive images, such as Ebony’s early photojournalism. Editorially determined “to mirror the happier side of Negro life,” Ebony contested the white-controlled media’s generally degrading and sensationalized images of black Americans; to uphold its opposition constrained the magazine to observe familiar codes of journalistic objectivity, emphasize “true to life” depictions of recognizable situations, and avoid “original” and personally “expressive” photographic styles that enlivened other pictorial magazines.
To be continued: The rest of the introduction will incorporate material that is now in the Table of Contents chapter summaries. I will consider questions of influence or, at least, connection between bodies of work: for example, were Ebony’s codes of ultra-respectable African American representation influential on civil rights coverage? What elements in Weems’s work seem to reconcile her acknowledged influences, the very differently-oriented Wright and DeCarava? I will also touch on gender issues. I plan to end by returning to considering the meaning of “progress” and the implications of this study for black visual expression today, orienting my conclusion with these concepts from current authors in mind:
-Adam Green: “In the end, the imaginative life, and thus the social experience of African Americans over the past half century has been far richer than most have understood – indeed, it has time and again proven root source for many of the conventions by which we live today.”
From Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 217.
-Nikhil Pal Singh: black liberation movements were never “defined by…closure”; their struggle was “worldly, heterogeneous, insurgent, participatory, and disorderly in ways we desperately need once more.”
From Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 224.
-Howard Winant: The world remains a ghetto. Despite the “racial break,” white supremacy, now “a far more armoured, far more slippery target,” still structures the world. Its ideology and practice are sustained by hegemonic, incorporative practices rather than outright repression, and its sites of expression are diffuse and farflung. However, this hegemonic, decentered postmodern world system, which globalizes both racism and its opposition, may be more “open-ended” and more open to “agency” than has been thought.
See The New Politics Of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
- Bell hooks, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life,” in Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, ed. Deborah Willis (New York: New Press, 1994), 52.
- Howard Winant, The New Politics Of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), xii, passim.
- I will use this term to designate intentionally public, contestatory images that intervene on behalf of people of color, whether or not their makers were people of color.