Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2011
Erina Duganne The Self in Black and White: Race and Subjectivity in Postwar American Photography Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010. 248 pp.; 38 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (9781584658023)

Erina Duganne’s The Self in Black and White offers five overlapping case studies of photographic projects created in and around New York City during the postwar period. In four chapters and an epilogue the book explores the photographic practices of the African American Kamoinge Workshop; Bruce Davidson’s “American Negro” project and the Office of Economic Opportunity’s “Profiles of Poverty” exhibition; Davidson and Roy DeCarava’s civil rights photography; DeCarava’s photographs of Harlem; and Dawoud Bey’s “Harlem USA” project. The chapters work together to explore the relational nature of selfhood as expressed through photographic practice.

Duganne’s book is an ambitious and well-researched work that makes a significant contribution to the examination of racial construction in the postwar period. Rather than produce a study that simply recovers lost or undervalued photographers, photographic essays, and exhibitions—and so contributes incrementally to an understanding of the period—she makes a series of novel and largely rewarding decisions for structuring her book. While interested in photographs that reflect on African American life and identity, she analyzes the photographs of both black and white photographers. Duganne appreciates that the construction of black identity and selfhood is not fashioned in a vacuum; as a consequence, she pays attention to social context, but also to the ways in which white photographers, editors, politicians, and curators made their own contributions to the construction of racialized subjects during these years. Even as she acknowledges the pioneering generation of photographic historians who heroically recovered the biographies and work of forgotten or slighted African American practitioners, she notes the need to move beyond such recuperative projects to focus on the complex ways in which identity formation works in practice.

In contrast to the many studies that see black photographers providing “positive” images of African American life as a counterbalance to mainstream depictions of black poverty, violence, and, at times, degeneracy, Duganne illustrates the complex and contradictory aims and motivations of black and white photographers who recorded the lives around them. She brings much-needed historical specificity to the creation of particular images, illustrating that their history and meanings are vastly more nuanced than we have previously been led to believe. Through her careful attention to the biographies of her photographers and the circulation history of their images, she produces a micro-study of racial formation, which complements the many sweeping histories of race and photography currently dominating the field. Along the way, Duganne explodes a series of monolithic categories that are a staple of books on photography and race: she undermines essentialist notions of African American “insiders” getting black life right by illustrating the work of black and white photographers together; she problematizes whiteness by attending to how it is complicated by religious affiliation and economic standing; and she breaks down the concept of “Harlem” by showcasing its complex ethnic, economic, and ideological makeup.

In each of her chapters, Duganne charts a middle ground between what she sees as the tendency of photographic historians to locate the significance of photographs in one of two polar extremes: the intent of their creators or the social context in which they were produced and circulated. To illustrate the importance of both authorial intent and context for the production of meaning, Duganne argues that historians in both camps have enforced a kind of intellectual orthodoxy that has undermined an awareness of how photographic meaning is created in context. Her argument for returning authorial intent to a number of black photographers only recently brought into the canon may remind readers of the analogous calls made by feminist art historians in the 1970s. At the very moment when neglected female artists gained attention in the academy and the art market, feminists noted the irony of postmodern pronouncements on the “death” of the author providing a theoretically defensible rationale for downplaying the actions of a historically disempowered group.

My only substantive concern stems from what I take as Duganne’s inattention to how the meanings of images are produced in the social sphere as they are read by actual (not ideal) viewers. Her study provides an impressive depth of context regarding the production of photographs—explaining the photographer’s thought process, associations, and frequently delving into the decisions made by editors in captioning and publishing images—but it is comparatively weak in demonstrating how photographs were experienced by actual viewers in the postwar years. In a passage typical of her analysis of images, she asserts that the formal and narrative choices made by Beuford Smith in his photograph of a woman seated in the doorway of Harlem’s famous National Memorial African Bookstore, “refocuses the viewer’s attention on the discontinuity between the bookseller’s collective nationalist agenda and the individuals, especially the community of elders, who also lived in Harlem . . . [and] encourages the viewer to both reconsider terms like black nationalism as a set of relational, as opposed to fixed, associations and to think more carefully about the complex relationship of this movement to Harlem and to the individuals who live there as well as travel there” (31). It is certainly possible that the photograph had the described effect on viewers, but it is difficult to evaluate the author’s claims, given that they are not grounded on the kind of detailed historical evidence she marshals so effectively in making the case for the photographer’s intentions. The highly nuanced readings she presents of particularized photographers (i.e., a working-class African American living in a mixed race neighborhood) stand in stark contrast to the readings presented of “universal” viewers, apparently without class, racial, or gendered allegiances, who are invoked frequently throughout the book. While speculative pronouncements on a photograph’s effect are well within the discursive bounds of contemporary art-historical practice, they stand out in a study otherwise notable for its attention to the historical record.

Duganne’s historically rich treatment of race and subjectivity in the postwar years offers a fine addition to the literature on photography, and it will be eagerly read by art historians, photographic historians, and scholars of American studies for years to come. It marks a generational advance beyond the many photographic studies mired in increasingly dated accounts of “black” versus “white” photography.

Martin A. Berger
Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture Department, University of California at Santa Cruz