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Reviewed by:
Joseph R. Millichap. The Language of Vision: Photography and Southern Literature in the 1930s and After. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 164. $40.00 (cloth).

The past twenty years have seen a relative explosion of criticism exploring intersections of literature and photography, particularly during the modernist period that was such a fertile time for both. Joseph Millichap contributes to this scholarship with a valuable work of synthesis focusing on the reciprocal creative relationship between photography and writers in the US South during the 1930s and shortly after. This is the period of literary production commonly referred to as the Southern Renaissance, and Millichap makes a compelling argument for the importance of photography in the work of several authors often associated with that movement: James Agee, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Ralph Ellison. As Millichap shows, all of these authors were keenly interested in the theory and workings of photography (Welty and Ellison were photographers themselves) and their work in turn influenced photographers such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and William Christenberry. In photography and literature's "intertextual languages of vision" in the 1930s, Millichap, following Morris Dickstein, identifies a primary tension, a "dialectic of a revived documentary realism and an ongoing subjective modernism," with resonances for later photographers and southern writers, into our own time (17, 27).

Photography has played a key role in developing the political and cultural identity of the South virtually from the time of its invention. Like other Americans, southerners were quick to embrace the new technology as a crucial tool for self-representation and memory, and for reinforcing, implicitly or explicitly, what Millichap aptly calls the "[v]isual and psychological binaries of region and race" (2). Those on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, like Frederick Douglass and J. T. Zealy (a Charleston photographer commissioned by Harvard anthropologists to document "inferior" slave physiognomies), understood well the power of the camera to buttress, or to resist, such binaries. Southern authors, too, have exploited photography as a potent metaphor for the ambivalent workings of memory, time, vision, history, and always-contested cultural "truths" of race, gender, class, and regional identity. As David Madden's early account of photography from the Civil War, the Depression, and the Civil Rights-era South in "The Cruel Radiance of What Is" attests, southerners have long understood that "southern" photographic and literary discourse functions both in regional and national frames, helping to cement, and to critique, the South's role as (to borrow Leigh Anne Duck's useful phrase) "the nation's region."

Drawing on previous scholarship (including, generously, my own), Millichap provides a brief overview both of this history and of the critical formulations of photography (particularly by Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Walker Evans) he finds most useful for understanding it. While taking pains to acknowledge the South's literary-photographic heritage as longstanding and ongoing, Millichap locates its "focal moment" in the 1930s, a decade "when modern literary texts at once refigured images from the photography of the past and projected photographic images of the present to influence future developments of southern life and art, both literary and visual" (3). This is, of course, an argument that can best be made in hindsight, when "future developments" are readily in evidence, and by Millichap's own characterization, his study proceeds denotatively, through a series of close readings of southern authors whose work serves to illustrate an engagement with modernist literary and photographic practice, and its lingering influence through to contemporary southern literature. Central to Millichap's study is Evans, whose notion of "the language of vision" provides both title and conceptual framework. Renowned as a photographer, Evans initially hoped to join the ranks of the modernist writers whose experiments in reflexivity and subjectivity fascinated him; Evans's concept of "lyric documentary" reflects his continuous effort to place traditions of word and image in productive interplay. Millichap's own account of the language of vision in southern literature reflects this dual fascination and is similarly expansive, encompassing literary ekphrasis, visual approximations of time, verbal and visual juxtapositions, and photographs of words.

In "the complementary and conflicting visual and verbal intertexts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Launched on MUSE
2017-09-01
Open Access
No
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