Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2012
Maurice Berger For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 224 pp.; 37 color ills.; 53 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780300121315)
Martin A. Berger Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 249 pp. Paper $27.50 (9780520268647)

Two recent books on visual culture and civil rights envision the pathway through race and nation as an endeavor privileging the visual and utilizing the corporeal. However, these books diverge at the point of “seeing,” with Maurice Berger investing in the expansive range of twentieth-century visual culture as it pertains to African Americans and Martin Berger zeroing in on what he calls “the complex social dynamics of the civil rights movement” (4). The latter, in other words, examines how images aided and abetted racial hegemony and comfort, racial expectation, and national investment.

Both For All the World to See and Seeing through Race use famous images of the black freedom struggle as cover art. For All the World to See reproduces the famous Ernest Withers 1968 photograph of the Memphis sanitation workers strike (“I AM A MAN”); this image intimates the death of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in Memphis after arriving to help the sanitation workers improve working conditions and receive better pay. Seeing through Race reproduces Bill Hudson’s 1963 photograph of fifteen-year-old Walter Gadsden being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama. These choices in cover image illustrate most cleanly the divergent concerns of each text as it pertains to the (re)use of photographic representation: For All the World to See privileges black legibility and exposure, while Seeing through Race is more invested in the texture of racial terror and visual misuse. Both cover images also privilege the photography of the civil rights movement as a quest for humanity through manhood, or the recognition of masculine citizenship. And while the question of photographic representation pervades both texts, For All the World to See is interested in “the relationship between visual images and the struggle for civil rights” that extends beyond the photographic and into the many disparate visual images attending African Americans and representation (7).

As the symbolic center of the struggle for civil rights in imagery, Alabama is front and center in both texts, which profile the movement from Birmingham and Selma, through Mississippi (the Emmett Till case), the nation’s capital, and back to Alabama. As a result, the South, the mechanisms of political engagement, and the quelling and regional management of the burgeoning movement are highlighted in both texts. From the outset, then, For All the World to See and Seeing through Race may seem similar. But as each book unfolds, the reader learns that they have very different aims and are only tangentially (albeit interestingly) interconnected.

The larger questions surrounding Maurice Berger’s book concern the power and import of iconic images from the civil rights movement; these are the photographs most Americans have come to know and associate with this period. Maurice Berger wants to call attention to this knowledge and highlight it. In doing so he hopes to participate in what he calls the “predominant view of race in America,” a view that was dependent upon a strict hierarchy of vision (19). In four chapters, For All the World to See provides an overview of the visual representation of African Americans from the 1930s to the 1970s, narrating this history as a clashing of contingent forces: war, nationalist agendas, racial agitation, and political mutations of American identity. As the book’s subtitle illustrates, the struggle for civil rights is at the center of this discourse of race and nation, and as such demarcates much of the text’s immediate concerns. For All the World to See is also an art exhibition with multiple venue stops. For All the World to See is diligently researched, and approaches the discourse of visual culture and race in a manner complemented by Berger’s previous book on the subject, White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000). In that book he balances his biographical observations with a cultural critique that blends narrative, intellectual, nationalist, and political concerns, and focuses these around the question of race.

Maurice Berger is particularly adept at parsing out the racialized dimensions of cultural production; films, advertisements, and images of reinforced servitude are his focus. His introduction opens with a discussion of Gordon Parks’s use of photography as a “weapon of choice” (a phrase taken from the title of Parks’s autobiography), one that corresponds with an emergent civil rights movement that Berger argues was “coextensive . . . with the birth of television and the rise of picture magazines and other forms of visual mass media” (6). Throughout his discussion of this material, Berger sometimes gives the white American consumer and popular culture in the twentieth century the benefit of the doubt. Political intent is often softened, in other words, so that insecurity and anxiety are represented as unintended accidents of racial privilege. Yet since these images (as Berger cogently explains) emerge out of a history of slavery, there is little doubt that a complex desire for hegemonic repetition is at play. When he observes, for instance, that Gone with the Wind “subtly extolled the glory of the plantation,” then notes later in the paragraph that the film was a “lavish” display of racialized reinforcement (29), it seems that he is at odds with the force of his own argument (there is, after all, nothing subtle about the film). These minor hesitations often stand out because they are dissimilar to the overarching aims of the book. Though tethered to an ideology of forced invisibility (Berger invokes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to further this point), what also seems at play here, and is mentioned only fleetingly, is the hyper-visibility of American racism that is dependent upon a swift mobility of imagery (daily newspapers, magazines, television) to solidify racial engagement. This solidification could also explain why the same images traveling the globe in the 1950s and 1960s did very little to alter or affect the implementation of segregationist systems in countries like South Africa. More importantly, the arbitrary nature of racial violence, then as now, is a negotiation of invisibility (failure to see black humanity) and hyper-visibility (the swift measure of delineated unbelonging).

For All the World to See could have also spent more time on Black Panther imagery, particularly since Gordon Parks formed a significant portion of the book’s initial argument that photography could function as a weapon against hegemonic powers. Parks’s photographs of the Black Panthers might have been invoked later in the book, even with his well-known critique of the organization. This would have enabled Berger to say more about the conscious deployment of imagery (with both accidental and purposeful results) by members of the Black Panther Party, as it was clear that central to the construction and design of the movement were the intent and import of images. Leigh Raiford dedicates much of her recent book, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), to the productive aesthetic and political pronouncements of iconographic photographs from the civil rights and black power movements. About the Black Panther Party in particular, she writes, “the Panthers did not make furtive walks down long roads under cover of night to mobilize constituents,” but rather “committed itself to remaining within the purview of all of its observers”(144). To be “within the purview” of those who both see and refuse to see, the Panthers attempted to shape the contours of this representative imagery (with often inconsistent or surprising results).

For All the World to See thus misses out on some of the mastery of the imagery employed by Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and other members of the Black Panther Party, which speaks to an overarching lack of radical black agency in the book. This results in what I see as an unintended consequence: the chapters often invest in the iconography of the imagery without a deepened analysis of how the images have functioned over time. Examining more fully how black people were visualized and how those images were manipulated, fragmented, and corrupted might have allowed the book to connect more strongly to a well-woven political history of African American visuality.

What I found most intriguing about For All the World to See is Berger’s analysis of the advent of television and its representations of race in the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, I wanted more discussion of the performative and illustrative potential of television as a space of mobility and racial negotiation. I found Berger’s reading of the constellation of political agendas surrounding this medium—progressive, accommodating, and acquiescing—to be at once forceful and layered with meaning. From his consideration of the March on Washington, “enhanced by television’s repetitive and fundamentally pictorial reporting,” as a profound historical visual moment, to his articulation of the immediate and lasting appeal of the television program All in the Family (1971–79), he marks the space of television as a unique architecture of possibility for civil rights (127).

Narrowing his critical gaze on the photographic import of the civil rights movement, Martin Berger writes: “In contrast to the many books that focus on what civil rights photographs tell us about blacks, in this book I contemplate what they reveal about whites” (6). Seeing through Race focuses on the visualization of race, gender, and nation through lenses that mute individual responsibility to the hegemony of collective identity. It presents the civil rights movement and the photography attending its display as a spectacle of black legibility and white discomfort. Martin Berger spends a great deal of time considering the productive logic of guilt and shame, and the ways in which the sheer visuality of violence against black people did not succeed in progressing the cause of racial justice. Instead, a steady repetition of violent imagery—Emmett Till’s murdered corpse or black women beaten and subdued by police—either failed to enter the white imaginary or had little effect when shown publically. He argues that, although children and women occupied a space of potential white sympathy, the visual sublimation of innocence over guilt was not enough to make the project of civil rights legible to most white audiences. “The often-remarked-upon affective ‘appeal’ of the photographs to the hearts and consciences of whites” he writes, “and the claims for their role in catalyzing constructive change are difficult to reconcile with the images’ disconnect from the social, political, and racial realities of black Americans. After all, images working in a social vacuum produce progressive social change only by chance” (72–73).

Martin Berger’s handling of exclusively black-and-white photography might have given his book a more specific vantage point over Maurice Berger’s with respect to design and organization. That said, the cover design of Seeing through Race gives me pause: it is a not-at-all subtle display of the very repetition of imagery that Martin Berger critiques in the book so effectively. While I do not object to the use of one of the more famous images from the American civil rights movement, silver literally glistens on its reproduction, as if aestheticizing this act of violence. The photograph of fifteen-year-old Gadsden on the book’s cover also recalls the cover of Peter Magubane’s Magubane’s South Africa (New York: Knopf, 1978). Taken in 1967 at a football game, Magubane notes that the use of police dogs is something new—imported, one can assume—with the swift mobility of civil rights images like Hudson’s photo of Gadsden.

For Martin Berger, whose previous book, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), also explores the vicissitudes of racial hegemony and visuality, photography provides a useable lens through which to parse out the meaning of nationalist imperatives, which are racialized ontologies of affect and empathy. Martin Berger’s project falls more pointedly within the fields of photography studies and photography theory than For All the World to See, and because of this it has a more nuanced understanding of the specificity of the photographic relationship forged through media presentations and visual deployments of race and violence. Martin Berger delineates more consciously the line between whiteness and the hegemony of the racialized gaze as part of the process and the product of meaning making in photography. His focus corresponds with the critical interplay of race and photography presented by Deborah Willis, Laura Wexler, Ulrich Baer, Tanya Sheehan, Shawn Michelle Smith, and Raiford, among others. Examining a nation unable to envision the necessity for civil rights legislation without doing violence to particular bodies, Seeing through Race is a book invested in the alternative spaces images create and the many ways in which they are consumed. As a result of this investment, the (re)production of the passive black victim (best illustrated by the cover image) figures prominently in the text. As Martin Berger writes, “depicting blacks as passive was routine long before the development of twentieth-century civil rights strategies; and white journalists (and later historians) presented black civil rights protesters as passive because that narrative most effectively engaged whites and met their psychological needs” (39). Seeing through Race profiles the movement of black bodies alongside photographic containment and the racial demarcations of black bodies as malleable texts serving white needs.

To do this, and do this effectively, Martin Berger seeks out images and image-makers, icons and iconic representations. He also utilizes the absence of the archive as a way to speak through racialized bodies. In four chapters, he presents the reader with a racialized set of expectations inherent in the coded rhetoric of both the civil rights photographer (i.e., Charles Moore) and representations of the state (i.e., “Bull” Connor). In prose that is at once elegant and convincing, he illustrates that the strategic choices of the agents of the civil rights movement, their purposeful visual demarcations and delineations, provided an arc of violence projected onto black flesh that was not necessarily legible in ways that we imagine nostalgically when we contemplate the movement. Rather, in order to see through race, the deployment of the corporeal happened as a negotiated and proximate intimacy of men, women, and children.

In Deborah Willis’s edited volume Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, African American artist Clarissa T. Sligh reflects on the imagery of Emmett Till proliferating in black periodicals after his murder, and the effect it had on her as a teenager. A profound injustice is at the core of her anxiety about racial identity: “To whom could I turn to express my rage and indignation at the injustices being done? How could the adults around me accept that the white men who killed [Emmett Till] would never be punished?” (Deborah Willis, ed., Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, New York: New Press, 1994, 93) Seeing through Race draws upon the coalescent concerns of race and national belonging, considering how “injustices being done” threaten to locate Sligh outside of the definition of U.S. citizenship. In his explicit critique of whiteness and of the violence in the photographic interplay of race and nation, Martin Berger imagines the project of the civil rights movement as ever evolving, though somewhat unsatisfactorily.

The thematics of seeing, framed by the methods of critical race studies, thus orient these two books by Maurice Berger and Martin A. Berger. Attending to the productive (and often reductive) resonance of race and visuality, For All the World to See attempts to highlight this resonance while Seeing through Race interrogates an implicit understanding of the framework in a particular visual moment. These books gesture toward imagining visual culture as an immediate force and a lingering imprint. Although diverging on points of collective intention and racial recovery (Maurice Berger seems more optimistic here), both authors imagine the discourse on race and visuality to be an evolving and essential space for the exploration of national slippages surrounding civil rights, ethics, visual culture, and citizenship.

Kimberly Juanita Brown
Assistant Professor, English Department, Northeastern University