- Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century
Sara Blair argues that photography has been an overlooked trope central to novels produced by mid-twentieth century black writers. Focusing on major black literary figures, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, and their seminal works, Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell It on the Mountain respectively, Blair demonstrates how encounters with photographs were pivotal elements of these narratives and their construction of black subjectivity. Blair excavates how the authors’ own experience with photography led to their use of this visual technology within their novels. In particular, she traces how either their engagement with documentary photography or with the combined photograph and text publication format informed their explorations of the possibility of the novelistic form. That these photographic projects took Harlem as their subject was no coincidence according to Blair. The authors all resided for a period in Harlem and they or their collaborators on photo-text projects took up Harlem as a subject whose contradictory manifestations of American modernity presented the ultimate challenge to capture with their cameras.
For Blair, Harlem in the wake of the riots of 1935 and 1943 represents a set of social and cultural forces that reflect the tensions within the nation state. As a new mode of photography labeled documentary emerged with the advent of the Leica single lens reflex camera in 1932, [End Page 641] Harlem became an increasingly compelling site for the pursuit of documentary photography. This type of photography emerged out the practice of whites, and more precisely, often left-leaning Jews, who developed their craft in their neighborhood haunts on the Lower East Side. This photographic mode was rapidly embraced as a part of the traffic in images that was coming to dominate the public sphere. Because documentary photography was routinely deployed in the service of state interests, Harlem functioned as a powerful symbol of the efforts to negotiate the problems of modern America. But when it came to Harlem, documentary photographers were challenged to adapt their practice to the realities of the place.
As socioeconomic conditions deteriorated in Harlem, what had only just recently become the most celebrated black community in the world had seemingly devolved into an impoverished, overcrowded, crime-ridden ghetto that highlighted the incongruities of modernization in the republic. Just as Harlem itself became a litmus test for achievements of American modernity, photographic projects of Harlem registered these lapses and failures even as it became clear just how difficult it was to represent the place and its people in all its fullness. Harlem functions for Blair as a crossroads where photography, black experience, and black authors seeking to reinvent the novel into a form adequate to the representation of black subjectivity converge. Blair traces how black writers engaged with photography as practitioners and through relationships with documentary photographers. The results of these encounters were novels that used photography as a literary device that was crucial for the articulation of the subjectivity and experiences of blacks.
Black novelists who wanted to imagine black life differently, as possibility rather than pathology, used their understanding of photography and its limitations—as a means to represent Harlem, and therefore, black life—to describe the problem of representing black life. The photographic encounter with Harlem became a device that propelled the narrative beyond perceived constraints of novelistic form enabling a new framework for the representation of the black subject to emerge. The novel, reworked by these mid-century authors in this fashion, was proffered as the best vehicle to articulate black subjectivity. Photography alone was deemed inadequate for this task while the written description of the act of photographing blacks or the addition of words to the narrative sequencing of photographic images in book format could transcend the shortcomings of visualizing blackness and give full expression to the black subject.
Blair’s study ultimately betrays a distrust of photography or visuality, perpetuating a tendency amongst interpreters of black experience to privilege the word over the visual...