Maren Stange *Please note that I am in the process of updating these essays and reconciling the small amount of material – primarily concerning the lack of African American representation in visual expression – that is repeated in more than one essay.
2. 12 Million Black Voices and the FSA Chicago coverage of 1941-42
This chapter combines and reworks material from “Not What We Seem” and “Bronzeville.”It discusses Wright and Rosskam’s 1941 book, an early and prescient “migration narrative,” which traced the population shift and urbanization that presaged the postwar “racial break.” The chapter also studies the 1500-image, two-week photographic coverage of Chicago’s South Side made by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers under Richard Wright’s direction (and sociologist Horace Cayton’s guidance) in order to provide urban images for the book, which thus conjoined the work of government employees with that of an acknowledged Communist Party member. Upon publication the book was featured in Book-of-the Month Club literature, offered free with a subscription to the Communist Party periodical New Masses, respectfully reviewed in mainstream periodicals, and investigated for seditious statements by the FBI. The carefully-detailed, fully-captioned Chicago coverage, including images of home life, work, worship, and recreation at varied economic levels, was the first extensive study of an urban black community over which blacks themselves had significant control. Bronzeville, as black residents called their expanse of South Side neighborhoods, was at once the product of a brutal, confining racism, and, increasingly, “the capital of black America,” showcasing a new, soon to be national, black identity. Still riveting after seventy years, the extraordinary range and detail of the images, especially those in Russell Lee’s masterfully information-laden style, shows a vibrant community that “…not many white men had the opportunity to see …the way we saw it …, ,” in photographer Edwin Rosskam’s words, because “Dick Wright knew everybody in the Negro world of Chicago.”
3. Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks is best known for an acclaimed career at Life magazine (by Life’s 1972 demise he was its highest paid contract photographer) and for the films Shaft (1971) and Shaft’s Big Score (1972), accomplishments establishing him as not only the first African American photojournalist hired by a major mass circulation magazine, but also the first to direct films for major Hollywood studios. Parks began his career as a portrait and fashion photographer in Chicago (the FSA file includes a photograph of a young Parks –unidentified –in a community center art class). Parks found his career among what Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson called “a new Black consumer class,”watching as notables and celebrities crafted an urban culture which Chicago-based publishers, record producers, and radio stations would soon distribute to African Americans nationwide. Arriving at Life in 1948 largely on the strength of his fashion work, Parks produced extensive fashion spreads throughout the 1960s, although he was by then prepared to photograph all kinds of stories and crafting appealing images in Life’s generally clear, well-lit, and legible photographic style. Described as “corporate modernism,” and imbued with a “mass-appeal aesthetic,”Life’s compelling, straightforward images and narratives served to emphasize what was reassuringly self-evident about America rather than to reveal the unexpected.Equally important to Parks’s success there, his worldview, and his work, confirmed the magazine’s central tenets. Despite – or because of – the magazine’s racist history, Parks was able to use his position to craft for himself a particular black male subjectivity that, as he often and publicly reworked it, helped both the magazine and Parks himself to affirm crucial qualities of journalistic objectivity and also to assign larger meaning to Parks’s resonant, often-told life story. That the fulfillment of both these needs could coincide may have been as significant in midcentury “race relations” as were the nominal contents of his stories.
4. Ebony’s First Ten Years
Though Ebony featured Parks in 1946 as one of its frequent “first and only” success stories, the Chicago magazine did not figure in his career plans. A large-format, pictorial “consumer magazine” that depended on advertising revenue and courted a wide circle of readers, John H. Johnson’s monthly was an instant success at its 1945 debut, and it has outlasted Life as well as countless other long- and short-lived rivals. The protocol at Lifeand other postwar mainstream media allowed only middle class white subjects to represent pleasant and/or typically American experience; others -foreigners and people of color – appeared only as designated victims who were “photographed and packaged as ‘sensations,'” writes James Guimond, or as “representatives of social issues or political problems,” notes Wendy Kozol. Ebony contested such hegemonic racial and social “truths.” Its determination to show “positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood” and to “mirror the happier side of Negro life” intervened against the exclusion of blacks and other persons of color from media constructions of a national, consensual discourse of progress and prosperity. However, like earlier re-formers of popular visual discourse, Ebony relied heavily on the presumed “transparency” and immediacy of photography’s indexical representation of its “real life” referents – the medium’s “privileged relation to the real” – to uphold its interventions. In its early years, its editors deployed photography that would not only uphold familiar codes of journalistic objectivity, but also, simultaneously, detach images of blacks from their pervasive association with equally familiar cultural representations as spectacular and/or degraded other and victim. Thus, the magazine’s images rarely deployed the photographic medium’s full range of stylistic and expressive possibility, and photographers eschewed techniques – such as dramatic lighting and camera angles, severe cropping, or soft focus, all readily found in mainstream mass circulation magazines – that invited viewers to emotional response.
5. Roy DeCarava
Coming of age in the 1940s, photographer Roy DeCarava saw that “black people in America were not viewed as worthy subject matter” for art but rather were usually “portrayed either in a superficial or a caricatured way or as a problem.” Undertaking a representation that was “serious,” “artistic,” and universally “human,” he wrote in regard to his first extended project, on the people of Harlem, that he wanted to achieve “a creative expression,” not a “documentary or sociological statement.”DeCarava won a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete that project, contributed images to the Family of Man exhibition, exhibited widely, and founded the Kamoinge Workshop of black photographers. Honing his style in the 1950s, however, DeCarava struggled to transcend not only prescribed subject matter but also stylistic prescriptions constraining both photography and “Negro art.” Social realism was “de rigueur for representation of and by Negro Americans” at midcentury, notes art historian Ann Gibson; art historian David Driskell complained that “no viable aesthetic was developed among black artists between 1930 and 1950,” because art was treated as if it must be “a lesson in social history or an instrument of social change.” DeCarava appears nothing short of iconoclastic in both his approach to photography, a medium strenuously identified with evidentiary truth, and in his esthetic ambitions to, as he said, “break through a kind of literalness,” and “express some things I felt.” Maintaining his quest to create a visually autonomous photographic subject of color, DeCarava endured decades of embittering misunderstanding. He has pointed out over and over that despite his “reputation as a documentar[y] photographer, … I really never was,” and reiterated his steadfastly modernist concern to achieve “a creative expression,” rather than a “documentary or sociological statement.”
6. Richard Wright’s African Photographs
Richard Wright left the United States in 1946, choosing self-exile in Paris and self-designation as a “Western man of color.” Maintaining longstanding political commitments, at the end of his life Wright had concluded, writes a biographer, that “the salvation of humanity could only come from the Third World.”An accomplished amateur photographer and, as we have seen, familiar with photo-text books, he made hundreds of photographs in the British colony Gold Coast during a ten-week visit in 1953 on the eve of its transition to the nation of Ghana, publishing his observations as Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. The book was intended to “suggest . . . the necessity of a collective coming to terms with the extraordinary historical circumstances of forced migration and modernity,” in order to “overcome the racism and parochialism that denied self-knowledge and freedom to both Africans and people of African descent in the West,” writes Kevin Gaines. More specifically, the book supported Ghana’s ongoing efforts to recruit black Americans with much-needed skills. Wright’s photographs, displaying the inclusive, informative style of FSA documentary as well as the tilted compositions and foreshortened perspectives of then-current street photography, included studies of family life, city and market scenes, men’s and women’s work, ritual, and industry. Frequently-repeated geometrical motifs – rooftops, drying fish, structural elements, even juxtapositions of passers-by – suggest Wright’s concern to offer viewers recognizable signs of order within exotic African scenes, even as he shows one-dimensional linear patterning to be an element of West African esthetics. Though Wright prepared and hoped to publish a large selection of captioned prints, the American edition had no photographs, and only a few appeared in other editions. These were always uncredited, so that, as unsituated, neutral, and objective observations, they are dissociated from Wright’s deeply felt text, despite several textual accounts of making them. His often humorous and widely contextual captions add much to the images, often addressing the visible or implied presence of imported goods in the photographs, instead of those that, ideally, an independent Ghana will produce for itself. Certainly Wright was unrealistic to imagine that on his own he could produce a 12 Million-like photo-text, and Black Power can be considered in some ways a failure. However, the images, driven by politics and yet inexpressibly personal, express both his “provisional” and ”limited” understanding of the Gold Coast, and his vision of the new nation as a comprehensible, attractive cultural and social space. The pictures at once account soberly for Africa’s lived experience and dream recklessly of (in Wright’s words) its “unprecedented,”“astonishing,” and “unheard of” future. 7. Civil Rights and Black Panthers: The Burden of Liveness and Visual Insurgency If television had not shown Bull Connor, his dogs, and the march on Selma, there would not have been momentum to push the civil rights acts through Congress, so that, in that regard, television “performed a magnificent service by showing violence,” claims a former television news editor. So key and central was media coverage to the Southern Civil Rights movement that campaigns not only made the provocation, even purposeful production, of spectacular racist violence against nonviolent black demonstrators a key movement tactic, but also demonstration participants, timing, and logistics were decided so that dramatic footage could reach New York in time for the evening news. Both Birmingham and Selma were chosen for major campaigns with such access in mind.In effect, such demonstrations imposed a “burden of liveness” upon demonstrating African Americans – an imperative to perform their own authenticity, whatever it might entail. Tracing the trope of liveness throughout African American televisual representation, Sasha Torres sees the 1960s as a moment that “coimplicates” developing network news programs and the Civil Rights Movement itself: to take on the required burden of liveness – to produce “televisual immediacy via black performances of physical suffering and political demand”– was seen as a necessary movement focus, crucial to immediate success irrespective of contingent effects. A few years later, the Black Panther Party, often assumed to have “conspicuously” created a “bold, brash” image that was “symbiotic” with mainstream media’s expectations, in fact developed quite different communicative tactics. Initially giving little thought to their mass mediated representation, they were intent on gathering and reaching a local (later national and international) counterpublic. Like civil rights organizers, the Panthers depended on the visual image and on the hypervisuality of the black body to attract support, but it was not the burden of liveness they conveyed and needed to dramatize, but rather, more difficult and threatening, what Nikhal Pal Singh has named their “insurgent visibility.” Concerned to negate imagery which connected the black body to comic stereotype or concretized it as abject, Panther-generated imagery did not ground its authority in a documentary truth claim, and it discouraged the kinds of realist or documentary readings that saw its spectacle as one-dimensionally revelatory. Emory Douglas’s “revolutionary art” for the Black Panther newspaper carefully complicated graphic representation, and Douglas’s racial representation, often of poverty and oppression, was de-coupled from verist visual claims in order to encourage critical viewing. The Panthers’“formidable” visual legacy, Amy Abugo Ongiri suggests, shows that its creators understood, in advance of postmodernism’s revaluation of popular and high art, and practiced its complication of “notions such as realism, authenticitiy, experience, and commercially driven expression.”
8. Carrie Mae Weems Throughout her career, Carrie Mae Weems has thematized questions of biography as form andcontent, intersections of history and memory, and elisions of author, authority, and authenticity. She has created increasingly diffuse and intertextual forms in recent work and photographed in many countries, engaging the possibilities of a “universal” referent figured as a person of color, even as, she notes, 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.”Weems explicitly acknowledges photographic forebearers Richard Wright and Roy DeCarava, titling one work “And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People,” and gesturing in her early “Family Pictures and Stories” to DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ seminal The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 photo-text focused on family that intentionally subverted familiar, objectifying documentary forms. Weems likewise distances her work from claims to documentary authenticity, using studio and lighting techniques familiar in commercial imagery, and, in pieces such as “Kitchen Table Series,” providing lengthy accompanying texts that are a tissue of clichés. Although one of the posed figures who “speaks” these time-worn phrases in that piece is Weems herself, she and her male counterpart ultimately enact above all an insistence on gender and race as cultural constructions. Her “Ain’t Joking” series required viewers to slide a panel open to read the punch lines of racist jokes, overcoming traditional prohibitions against touching displayed works of art and providing no grounds for disengagement from the exhibition’s disturbing content. Weems’s art constructs temporary unities resonant with many cultures and histories; and like the American culture and American black photography that are its touchstones, her work proposes universality as a desire among many.