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In a New Light: Early African American Photography

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 3, 2013
pp. 7-25 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0090

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In 2000, art historian, curator, and artist Deborah Willis presented Reflections in Black, the first major history of photography in the United States to foreground early African American photography. In the three years that the exhibition toured the country, and in the decade that its catalogue has been read avidly by students, historians, and practitioners of photography, Reflections in Black has exercised a powerful influence on how we think about photographic self-representation within the African American community. Willis taught us how to look for and at images that did not grossly caricature black bodies but instead “celebrated the achievements” of black subjects and “conveyed a sense of self and self-worth” (Willis, xvii). The placement of cameras in black hands, she argued, made such counter-representation possible; writing a different history of African American life and culture therefore depended on rediscovering the first black photographers. Scholars today remain indebted to the work of Reflections in Black as they develop new critical approaches to the study of early African American photography. The four books under review here, all published between 2010 and 2012, exemplify some of those approaches. Together they shed new light on photographic practices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only by attending to the experiences and desires of African American photographers, photographic subjects, and viewers (both then and now), but also by reflecting deeply on the complex interactions between the past and present, history and theory, word and image.

The most recent of these publications, Pictures and Progress, builds upon Willis’s work by “recover[ing] the various ways in which nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African Americans viewed, conceptualized, and most importantly used the new technology of photography to chart and change and enjoy new social positions and political identities.” This volume of essays, edited by U.S. cultural historians Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith defines the central problem it seeks to address as follows: “we know more about the imagery of racism than we do about what African American men and women did when they took photography into their own hands” (4). For Wallace and Smith, the act of taking the medium into one’s hands is symbolic of agency and should be understood in both literal and figurative terms. Adding this figurative dimension allows the editors to significantly expand upon the collection of early black photographers assembled in Reflections in Black. Augustus Washington, Thomas Askew, A. P. Bedou, and J. P. Ball—photographers researched extensively by Willis and now featured in survey histories of American photography—are represented in four short essays by Smith that she calls “critical snapshots.” The eleven main essays in the volume examine other figures as “important theorists and practitioners of photography,” specifically “prominent African American intellectuals, authors, orators, and activists” who “may never have picked up cameras themselves.” As the contributors to Pictures and Progress deftly argue, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois all “practiced” photography; that is to say, “they put photographs to striking use in their varied quests for social and political justice, plumbing and expanding the political power of the photograph” (4).

Frederick Douglass plays a central role in Pictures and Progress, inspiring the volume’s title and serving as the focus of its opening essays by Laura Wexler and Ginger Hill. The former slave turned outspoken abolitionist had much to say about photography in the two decades or so after the public announcement of its invention in 1839. In a series of lectures devoted to the subject of “pictures,” Wallace and Smith remind us, Douglass promoted “picture making” as a skill that distinguished men from animals and that could serve as the “primary catalyst for social change” (6). The key to such change was “making ourselves and others objects of ‘observation and contemplation’” (7). In Douglass’s view, members of the African American community, on the eve of emancipation, had to first picture themselves in order to achieve social progress. Photography enabled such work by being accessible to “ordinary people” (6). That the medium produced enduring records of the past, prolonging the “presence of absent subjects,” further endowed it with the...

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