Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2013
Tina M. Campt Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 256 pp.; 128 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780822350743)

In Image Matters, Tina Campt explores a visual nexus of black European subjectivities through an innovative interrogation of vernacular photography. This volume is a beautifully detailed account of Campt’s investigation, one that gracefully unfolds its unexpectedly private moments, moving public provocations, and at times chilling accounts of our perpetually returning historical legacies. Campt has gathered a stunning array of photographs from black German family albums for one case study, and, for her other in-depth analysis, selections from the Dyche Collection of the Birmingham City Archive in England. Culled from two distinct black communities, the collections of photographs reveal the ambiguous social reception that these groups experienced within their respective national contexts; they both struggled with thwarted manifestations of belonging and rigid structures of exclusion. Wielding a consortium of instruments, Campt attends to the understanding of vernacular images’ enunciatory functions. She finds that, “they were taken not only to be seen but also to be held. Thus while their primary sensory register is undoubtedly visual, they also have a haptic dimension” (18; emphasis in original). She further attends to the varying registers of racial and gender formation in transnational black communities, and to the specific localized archival formations that draw upon collective and relational practices of enunciation. A stream of light flows throughout the book: the haunting and refulgent images that grace and, at times, embrace Campt’s text. Image Matters provides rich and insightful methodologies that reach beyond the visual essence of the selected vernacular archives and engage with their photographs’ materiality as “image-objects” in customized and multidimensional processes.

Structurally, then, Image Matters is bifurcated into two core research projects. These seemingly unrelated ventures are linked by their geographical identities as two distinct micro-sites, or subcultural locales of blackness, within the diverse European landscape; they are further coupled together by a shared emphasis on family photographs. Campt adroitly plumbs each site with her deep readings and contemplations. Theoretically, she encounters these vernacular images as objects and things from which she gently extracts their scripts and traces out their social lives. For black German images she leverages an interrogating prism of “Sight, Sense, and Touch”; for black British portraiture, one of “Sight, Sound, and Score.” Continuous creative adaptations of vibrant concepts and theories in visual and material culture drive her text as Campt leverages the apparatuses of vernacular photography studies to garner support for her overall thesis: black Germans and black Britons used mundane image-making as life-affirming strategies and, in so doing, demonstrated multiple registers of expressed agency in being and becoming black Europeans.

Further sets of careful inquiries come from her interrogations of archives, both conceptual and literal. Campt engages in an inquiry and intervention with black visual culture as she finds, rescues, and consigns “ordinary photos” of black Europeans to a shifting global and visual archive of the African diaspora. As she negotiates its fraught terrain of antagonism and affinity, she gently rebukes its oscillating, contradictory, and resistant discourses of visual markers. In this way, she also questions liberal emancipatory projects that tend to gloss over disruptions and smooth out irregularities with teleological narratives of civil progress that not only recreate hierarchies but also manage to dismiss others with vague and contested inclusions. When Campt explores, for example, the “melodic register” (145) in which the British portraits seem to resonate with colonial ethnographic portraits that “dignified as well as pathologized their respective subjects” (147), she is attuned to the temporal and geographic strands of the diasporic archive and the historic Western gaze it brushes up against. Campt intervenes in the acerbic and bulging visual arsenal usually levied against black humanity and adds her fresh insights on the intertwined legacies and practices of community within it.

I would argue that the book’s clear politics and its attendant practices make it immensely rewarding to read. Yet Image Matters has much more to offer. There is an aural reverberation between Campt’s larger visual project of reconsidering race, politics, and the body within the African diaspora and her personal and professional crisscrossing of the Atlantic, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. We accompany her on visits to cities, community centers, archives, and homes as she meets with various collaborators on the project: descendent communities, archivists, and families, as well as her own friends and family, including family memoirs and stories of self. Through the intimate and palpable intertextuality of Image Matters, Campt’s journey into photography thus engages in an interplay between self, family, community, and African diaspora that teases out and ponders post-colonial globalism and practices of community.

In part 1, “Family Matters: Sight, Sense, Touch,” Campt focuses on post-World War I Germany as it lurches toward the Third Reich. Exploring the visual black German community through the affective timbres she perceives in family assemblages, Campt moves from abstract discussions of archives’ presumptions about the visual legibility of race to contemplations of how such imagined legibility affects the African diaspora’s governing logic of inclusion and exclusion. Picking up her strands of conceptual framing, Campt illuminates the affective registers and multiple moments encountered in the photographs’ social lives. They change hands and locations, collecting numerous experiences of having and holding. She extracts the images’ affective forms of labor by exploring “the technologies of vision, the politics of reading, and the sensual practices of archival creation, collection, and circulation” (41) that may make visible the practices of diasporic formation.

What are these images and collections of images that speak so insistently to Campt? A young man’s First Communion picture and a family wedding portrait; a tersely contained group of seated schoolboys and a proud gathering of uniformed Nazi youth; a prominent African patriarch with his family arrayed in urban and modern splendor; and a relaxed, beaming, interracial couple with their serene child. A prequel within her chapter on “Family Touches” contains a photograph that Campt refers to as “Three Soldiers Named Hans . . .” (36). Within her reflection on the image’s military performance is the first introduction to one of the volume’s main protagonists: “Hans Hauck, an Afro-German man born in 1920 to a German mother and Algerian father” (37). Yet later in her text, after she has detailed the racialized historical content and the context of state sterilization, social mobilization, and political subjection, Campt returns to this photo of the soldiers. She reprints it, and asks: “How does this image register now?” (59) Campt comments that: “Regardless of the institutional and official markings of its subjects, this photograph is also a haptic image constituted through private and tactile practices of collection and retention with the power to simultaneously evoke both tenderness and unease” (60). This is a superb and committed gesture: repeating an image’s appearance in the text after a discussion of its visual and affective enunciation and a thorough consideration of the historical conditions and influences of which the images speak.

In part 2, “Image Matters: Sight, Sound, Score,” Campt repositions her lens to focus on post-World War II Britain, just as it receives waves of Caribbean immigration, symbolically iconized by the 1945 voyage of the SS Empire Windrush. It is the black community in Birmingham that Campt finds captivating, as she tackles a collection of over ten thousand ordinary studio portraits made by West Indian immigrants and taken at the studio of Ernest Dyche Sr. and his son. Acquired in 1990 by the Birmingham City Library, this archive has been astutely explored before. However, the keynotes of Campt’s analysis push at the limits of those studies and, in particular, examine the practice of home in images that black Britons sent “back home." Campt interrogates the performance of gender and respectability in the images as reflections of their subjects’ vulnerabilities in their new societies and socializations. Asking contemporary black Britons to reflect on their intent in engaging with various image-making practices, they respond: “We just made them. That’s just what we did” (157). Campt allows her deeply affective experience of viewing the entire voluminous archive to set the tone for her inquiry. She notes: “The rhythms, hum, and patterns that these portraits evoke are produced through their repetitive predictability, yet it is also produced temporally through their consignation and domiciliation as an archive and a set” (197). Rather than receiving the images solely on a note of repetitive replication, Campt digs deep to access their creativity and improvisation as diasporic aesthetics in action. Her presentation is as jazzy as her chosen theoretical tools that employ musical assonances with her selection and layout of pictures, which in turn play with ensembled juxtapositions. Here, the mundane studio portraits, formatted in intriguing sequences, display their luminous visual, haptic, and sonic luxuries: nurses and purses; lingerings and hauntings; melodies and cuts of suit and hat, hands set here, feet positioned just this way. . . . The richness and deep meditations involved in Campt’s interrogatory maneuvers and sumptuously portrayed in her book propel readers along a lyrically narrated journey. And yet there are reasons to linger, with Campt, for in-depth contemplations.

When theoretical intersections of race, gender, and nation, along with contemplations of the work of the vernacular photographic image, converge with intertwined historiographical heritages of empire as well as variant discourses of African diaspora, a disorderly visual archive awaits: a daunting amalgamation of resisting webs, engraved routes, and dominant narratives. Image Matters offers Campt’s intimate reflections on photography, including her personal accounts of specific archival encounters and her rich conversations with a niche community of visual and material culture scholars. As she narrates her journey into photography, she transparently crafts a remarkable set of critical hermeneutic tools; with them, she tracks familial and societal consumption of family photographs on alternating registers of temporality, seriality, and circulation. She coaxes from the images their subjects’ meaning-making, and she discloses their critical productions of home. Campt’s carefully attuned repertoire of visuality and her assembled affective sensorium coalesce into an exceptional new application of the theory and practice of visual studies. Intentional limits on empirical content, engagement with new scholarship on colonial empire, and contemplations of multiple African diasporic formations provide a structural shape to the study’s thick theoretical approach to sticky objects. Contemporary and historical black Europeans have multiple stories that may not fit neatly within the book’s historical viewpoint, which clearly emanates from African American diaspora studies. Other perspectives and identity formation narratives will nonetheless be enriched by Campt’s important study. It will serve well for a variety of disciplines: visual and material African diaspora studies, photography, history, archive, and museum studies. Overall, this long-awaited volume makes inroads into nascent understandings of Black European visual culture and provides a consummate analysis of striking visualities—over there. There’s nothing quite like seeing in action the idea that, as exiled global citizens in unmoored cultures, it is imperative to perpetually "get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Fashioning multiple and conflicting enunciations of self as recurring processes may seem antithetical or paradoxical, but are in fact normative practices. Image Matters situates its black citizens both complexly and simply at home.

Vera Ingrid Grant
Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University