Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 22, 2018
Tina M. Campt Listening to Images Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2017. 152 pp.; 30 color ills.; 136 ills. Paperback $22.95 (9780822362708)

In her slim and concise “‘throat-clearing gesture’—the kind that introduces any inquiry with a series of queries and propositions that create an analytical space for thinking” (3), Tina Campt provides the theoretical accoutrements and methodologies necessary to contemplate what black refusal and resistance might sound like if we were to listen to images in addition to seeing them. A cogent combination of black feminist inquiry and diasporic visual culture, Listening to Images “reclaim[s] the photographic archives of precarious and dispossessed black subjects in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries by attending to the quiet but resonant frequencies of images that have been historically dismissed and disregarded” (11). Each chapter focuses on a series of “quiet photos” attentive to the “unspoken relations that structure them,” to the “archival encounter” (8), and to the “grammar of the camera” (9). The chapters are theoretically linked, yet each offers distinctive ways for the practice of “careful looking” that “emphasize[s] mobility, resistance, and expressiveness” (9). Individually, the chapters grapple with weighty terms such as “frequency,” “stasis,” “fugitivity,” and “haptic,” and together they create a “generative space of the counterintuitive” (6). To imagine what images might make us feel like if we allow ourselves to listen to them is counterintuitive. How would we listen, what are we listening for, and what would “quiet images” of everyday black people in diaspora sound and feel like?

In the introduction, “Listening to Images: An Exercise in Counterintuition,” Campt asks two essential questions: “How do we build a radical visual archive of the African Diaspora that grapples with the recalcitrant and disaffected, the unruly and the dispossessed? and through what modalities of perception, encounter, and engagement do we constitute it?” (3). Of course those questions lead to others that ask about the “technologies of capture” and “archival practices” (3). Campt investigates how visual archives are constituted alongside black vulnerability and resistance as well as the “modalities of perception” that are created by and through visual archives. Perhaps the most pertinent question of this provocative book is the investigation of sonic frequencies of images. She probes “the relationship between quiet and the quotidian” and how that relationship is mediated through everyday practices of refusal” (4). Using archives of identification photographs taken by “empire, science, or the state” as regulatory and classificatory processes of black bodies, Listening to Images “engages these images as conduits of an unlikely interplay between the vernacular and the state” to establish their quiet quotidian frequencies “as instances of rupture and refusal” (5) in their enunciation of alternative accounts of subjectivity. She advances both an intervention and a proposition for which listening to images is at once both descriptive and methodological, an intervention that opens up “radical interpretive possibilities” that are not simply determined through sight, but through aurality and tactility (5). Her meditations on freedom and the theoretical entanglements that are often found in “technologies of capture” and “archival practices” are tethered to the “creative strategies of refusal” (9). Fundamental to her theorizing is the work of Ariella Azoulay who suggests that we “watch” rather than look at photographs. Equally useful is Paul Gilroy’s “conceptual framework of the Black Atlantic” (6). Likewise, Fred Moten’s In the Break offers the intermedial language necessary to theorize “a haptic mode of engaging the sonic frequencies of photographs” (8). 

“Quiet Soundings: The Grammar of Black Futurity” takes a phenomenological approach that moves beyond “what will be in the future” to “the future real conditional or that which will have had to happen.” She locates “the future now” in “everyday imaging practices of black communities past, present, and future” (17) as illustrated in a photography exhibition held at the Walther Collection Project Space in Chelsea, New York City, 2013, of portraits taken by photographer Obal Denis in which the male sitters of the Acholi people of northern Uganda pose with hands clasped, intertwined, or palms down in nervous trepidation in their laps and the women sit with clutch purses placed on brightly patterned dresses, all seated against a red background. Once photographed, the sitters would only use the faces as identification photos to navigate and survive in the instability of post-conflict Uganda. The second body of photographic images are the commissioned portraits from the Ernest Dyche Collection of Birmingham’s Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, and Irish migrant community of the late 1940s to the early 1980s. While at first dismissing the photos for having “no insight in the interiority of their subjects,” with a nuanced eye and ear, Campt returns to these archives and listens to the ways in which these quiet photos “ruminate loudly on practices of diasporic refusal, fugitivity, and futurity” (24). In their sublime quietness they emit “aspirational politics,” an aestheticization that radiates a desire for upward mobility. Albeit illustrating their regulatory power, Campt asks us to listen to the potentialities of migratory power that engendered “new circuits of movement” throughout the Black Atlantic (26). Their determined fugitivity lies in a sitter’s “insistence on being a postcolonial, West Indian, and British subject” that demanded the “right to come, to go, and to stay, as well as to arrive and return over and again” (33, 31). Campt also considers Varna Road, a photo essay produced in 1969 by Janet Mendelsohn, a photographer/documentary filmmaker who worked with Stuart Hall at the University of Birmingham’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Varna Road documented the sex workers, pimps, and cops who roamed Balsall Heath, a neighborhood near Dyche’s studio. The Varna Road photos were taken around the same time as the passport photos (35). All three collections, through varying levels of quotidian frequencies, lay claims to survival, resilience, and possibilities in the aftermath of violence, migration, and displacement.

“Striking Poses in a Tense Grammar: Stasis and the Frequency of Black Refusal” explores the “complex set of tensions” that are present in late nineteenth-century ethnographic portraits of rural Africans in the Eastern Cape “[that] visualize a tense grammar of colonialization and black self-fashioning.” Using Darieck Scott’s concept of “‘muscular tension’ for theorizing an alternative vision of black futurity and possibility” (50), Campt illuminates the ways in which South African women who were brought to the Eastern Cape to build farms for Africans who were to convert to Christianity engender stasis, a delicate balance between stillness and readiness that resonates with a profound sense of interiority. With their averted gazes and reserved poses, these wives and mothers “whose role maintaining their communities was both emotional and physical” (58) exist against photography’s hegemony in ways that disavow its deadening power. Campt explores the different muscular tensions and “atmospheric and aestheticized” stasis (55) that are present in The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950 (1997) studio portraits taken by the South African photographer Santu Mofokeng of working-class South African Christians who visualized aspirational desires. She writes, “Mofokeng’s album is not simply a ‘family album,’” as a visual archive, the images “mobilize the colonial portrait as a site of fugitivity through forms of self-fashioning that enunciate quiet but resonant claims to personhood and subjectivity” (65). Both sets of portraits strategically operate in a tense that is equally defined by time and personified on the body.

“Haptic Temporalities: The Quiet Frequency of Touch” offers an analysis of a visuality that emphasizes the ways an image signifies through feel. Campt uses archives of photographs of prisoners from Cape Town and Civil Rights–era mugshots of Freedom Riders, attentive to the “grammar of the archive” (72). The sonic and visual language of convict photos that are “made to identify, classify, isolate, and distinguish” (75) leads us to question whether to see is to feel and to touch is to possess. Through a deep exploration of the complexities of “haptic temporalities” (81), Campt asks us to understand the discursive nature of photography and its ocular and regulatory power as it is constituted by touch, sound, and the visual. In “Black Futurity and the Echo of Premature Death,” a chapter that is somewhat personal, Campt narrates her search for a mug shot from a childhood memory of an “austere arrest photo of a beautiful brown-skinned boy with wavy hair and hazel eyes” (103). However, her misremembering of what turns out to be a newspaper photo “was a poignant and painful reminder of the power of photographic images to interpellate black bodies” (106). The book ends the way it begins, detailing the “unsayability of words” (4) that cannot articulate or remember the profound precariousness and vulnerability of black life.

Campt has written a succinct book of intensive propositions that ask the reader to be attuned not to facts but to the “unsayable truths” and “to perceive their quiet frequencies of possibility” (45) among the fact of improbability. What I appreciate are the speculative and generative methods she offers to study the photographic image and their sensorial register, delicately balancing the narratological and ontological presence of ledgers, mug shots, portraits, passport photographs, albums with the alternative rhythmic truths and strategic frequencies that we eventually come to listen to. Thus, in the brilliant tradition of Hortense Spillers, Listening to Images advances new grammar and lexicon to visualize black resilience that will have had to refuse premature death to exist in the future now. In her desire to clarify her points, there are moments of repetitiveness of ideas already made clear in previous chapters and sometimes preceding pages. Nonetheless, perhaps the points bear repeating given the vulnerability and precariousness of black life. Listening to Images is an intricate text expounding on the theoretical interplay among archiving, seeing, and listening to visual materials that are in plain sight but not in sight. Thus, the sounds that they generate are quiet and have gripping agentive frequencies. It is a meditation on how a commitment to creating new epistemological ways of parlaying “black feminist praxis of futurity” in and through dynamic visual archives enables one to seek liberally, see deeply, and listen intensely (114).

Jerry Philogene
Associate Professor, American Studies Department, Dickinson College