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Increasing attention to the systemic violence endured by African Americans is raising fundamental questions about what it is like to inhabit that identity. What does it mean to be African American? How does the experience of the African American subject shape the identity of the nation itself? History, of course, informs both these questions and any attempt at answering them. Given that race is partly a visual construct, how African Americans see and are seen is an essential part of this narrative. Since its inception, photography has influenced “habits of looking” (42).
Neither fully a photo history nor fully a social history, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity is a collection of essays that narrate photography’s role in the emergence of a free black U.S. citizenry. This process was closely intertwined with dramatic shifts in the country’s self-conception during the nineteenth century, and editors Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith argue that popular early photographic technologies like the daguerreotype, tintypes, and cartes de visite “radically altered the ways Americans viewed themselves as subjects and citizens” (2). For African Americans, such technologies offered a means for contesting existing ideas about race and influencing how these perceptions changed during and after the Civil War. Photographs of black soldiers and aspirational studio portraits visualized “the freedom dreams of the newly emancipated” (2). At the same time, Wallace and Smith argue that more than simply offering pictures of uplift (or abjection), photography presented a new way of seeing the world that helped shape the very meaning of freedom, while this changing understanding of freedom in turn influenced the cultural meaning of photographs. Thus the early African American use of photography was critical in developing a “modern way of seeing” (3), and the connection between the visuality of race and photographic vision, as well as their entwinement with philosophies of freedom and subjecthood, persists as a leitmotif throughout the text.
The relationship between photography as technology and mode of thought also guides the range of subject matter. Wallace and Smith emphasize that Pictures and Progress is not a history of African American photography per se; rather, it is about “what subjects, consumers, viewers, and photographers do with photographs” (15; emphasis in original). As a result, many of the essays focus less on specific photographs and more on how photography was used as a literary metaphor, a lecture topic, or a promotional tool. This interdisciplinary approach generally works well, providing a more comprehensive view of the codevelopment of photographic ideologies and African American culture. However, there is an abrupt shift about halfway through the book that makes methodological differences feel starker than they really are; selecting a chapter order that interweaved the literary and the art historical more fluidly would have strengthened the collection as a whole.
The book is titled after Frederick Douglass’s famous “Pictures and Progress” lecture, dating from the early 1860s, and begins with a pair of essays on Douglass by Laura Wexler and Ginger Hill. They each explore how he used photography to imagine and (re)construct an individual sense of self and a national sense of African American subjecthood. The essays by Wexler and Hill also make a persuasive case for the importance of Douglass’s writing as early efforts at theorizing photography itself, which he viewed as both part of the fundamental human urge to represent oneself and a new tool for radically altering socialized ways of seeing.
Augusta Rohrbach further develops the relationship between photography and self-fashioning, examining Sojourner Truth’s use of photographs to promote her work as a feminist and abolitionist speaker. Rohrbach demonstrates how Truth refined her visual strategy over time in response to market demands, capitalizing on changing ideas about photography, transparency, and authenticity in order to maintain control over her public identity. Rohrbach’s argument hinges on Truth’s authorial control over the content of her images even though she could not strictly be called the photographer; this inversion of agency between photographer and subject is critical to many essays in the collection.
A brief intermission follows Rohrbach’s essay via the first of four “snapshots,” a series of interstitial essays written by Smith. These short texts will likely be the most appealing part of the book to photo historians—in just a few pages, Smith masterfully combines social and historical context with elegant visual analyses of the photographs themselves. Each snapshot focuses on one photographer and usually presents two or three images. The first looks at works by Augustus Washington, while the second, third, and fourth discuss Thomas Askew, A. P. Bedou, and J. P. Ball, respectively.
Two subsequent essays examine photographic models of vision in late nineteenth-century African American literature. First, Michael Chaney tracks the metaphor of the camera obscura in Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. He explores how Jacobs treats visibility as a tool of violence and domination over the black body, and retreat from visibility as a (not always successful) strategy of resistance. Then P. Gabrielle Foreman challenges scholarly dependence on white, patrilineal mulatto/a genealogies, shifting attention to black female agency in several texts in which African American women deploy passing as a tool to reclaim blackness and recuperate their families (passing through, rather than passing for). For Foreman, the evidentiary force that accrued to photography during the nineteenth century made it a critical tool for producing meaning in relation to the mulatta body.
In one of the book’s primarily literary chapters, Ray Sapirstein reviews Paul Laurence Dunbar’s six volumes of poetry published in conjunction with the Hampton Institute Camera Club, which selected poems for republication and provided photographs to pair with the texts. Sapirstein argues that the combination opened both poems and photographs to new and multiplicative meanings, together proposing a mode of anti-essentialist seeing that insists on African Americanness as just one aspect of an individual’s identity.
Suzanne Schneider examines Louis Agassiz’s slave daguerreotypes in order to discuss photography’s troubling entanglement with pseudoscientific race studies. But she challenges the ways in which these photographs have been relegated solely to the history of ethnography, arguing that their then-unusual focus on male genitalia demands a closer look at how the erotics of black bodies functioned in both Agassiz’s and the nation’s imaginations. Ultimately, Schneider demonstrates that these images helped inaugurate a nineteenth-century shift from the eroticization of the black female body to an obsession with the hypersexualized (and feared) black male body.
Both chapters 8 and 9 invert the approach of earlier essays, now using literary tropes to analyze photographs. In an essay on images of black soldiers from the Civil War, Wallace deploys Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s theory of chiasmus to argue that a pair of photographs of a black man uses the logic of reversal to visually communicate a message of enslavement and freedom. But it is a deceptive message that occludes black agency and suffering, and is easily reversed again when Wallace reads a photograph of the Fourth U.S. Colored Troops Infantry against a postwar image of black convicts, picturing the progression of the iconography of African American masculinity from slave to citizen to criminal.
Smith also draws on Gates, borrowing his theory of signifying to unpack W. E. B. Du Bois’s American Negro photo books produced for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Focusing primarily on pairs of black formal portraits that echo nineteenth-century white mug shots, Smith argues that the images produce a double signification of middle-class privilege and criminality that subverts race hierarchies by destabilizing the visual opposition between whiteness and blackness. For Smith, the books embody the insistently visual paradigm through which Du Bois defined African American identity—double consciousness, or the experience of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (274; emphasis in original).
In the following chapter, Leigh Raiford uses Allan Sekula’s concept of the shadow archive—an inclusive body of images that positions individuals in relationship to social hierarchies—to examine three seemingly disparate photographs from the Ida B. Wells archive: a lynching postcard, a commissioned portrait of Wells with the family of a recently lynched friend, and a studio portrait of her alone. Situating the pictures in the context of both lynching photography and Wells’s anti-lynching activism, Raiford demonstrates how Wells used photography to produce a critique of the white gaze and construct a program of self-representation that challenged race and gender paradigms alike.
The volume concludes with an essay by Cheryl Finley on an album of tintype portraits of African Americans that she found at auction. Finley reflects meditatively on the experience of stumbling upon the collection, walking readers through the appearance and construction of the album in loving detail before turning to analyze the portraits it contains and the careful choices the sitters made in an effort to represent themselves. Finley weaves her own narrative in and around the gaps created by the album’s unknown origins, building a relationship with this visual history that drove her to bid on the photographs as though she were rescuing her own kin. The book thus ends on a powerful note of rich visual detail and affective intimacy, reminding readers of the intensely personal nature of the histories that are uncovered and retold in the preceding essays.
This emotional urgency reverberates throughout Pictures and Progress, and it underscores the very real consequences of how we see. At the end of her essay on Du Bois, Smith turns to Kaja Silverman’s concept of the “productive look,” which she defines as “a transformative look, a means of seeing beyond the ‘screen’ of cultural programming” (293). Calling on contemporary viewers to employ the productive look as an ethical act, Smith argues that confronting images like Du Bois’s can help us interrogate the structures that continue to perpetuate white privilege today.
Smith originally published that call to action in 2000, and since then there has been a steady increase in attention to African American art histories, including several major museum exhibitions and a surge in scholarly publications. One particularly notable project is Deborah Willis’s ongoing archival research into early African American photography and photographic writing, which has had an impact well beyond her own publications (Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photography, 1840 to the Present, New York: Norton, 2000; and Deborah Willis, ed., Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, New York: New Press, 1994). This work by Willis provided invaluable source material for many of the texts in Pictures and Progress, as well as Thomas Allen Harris’s documentary film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014). To this ongoing dialogue, Pictures and Progress offers an important interdisciplinary analysis of the closely linked histories of photography and African American subjecthood.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of California Los Angeles