- Narrating Photography in The Sweet Flypaper of Life
The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) is the result of a collaborative effort between photographer Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes. Their unique fusion of words and images provides an opportunity to examine how the two media can be brought together to form composite modes of expression. DeCarava and Hughes’s work reveals their deft command of both African American and Western cultural practices, which they employ to forward their vision of black Americans as full participants in American life and culture. My analysis of The Sweet Flypaper of Life explores the intersection of the visual and the verbal in the work. The two media are most fully appreciated through their relation to one another, as they are shown to interact in a constant flux of boundary crossings, resulting in a dynamic interconnectivity. In addition, the two media are linked and interrelated by a passion for subversion: the images created by DeCarava deviate from and subvert standard portrayals of black Americans in the mainstream media, while the text created by Hughes resorts to trickster tactics, articulating a double-edged message of compliance and subversion.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life has received little critical attention to date. None of the approaches put forth has sought to read the text comprehensively as an instance of boundary crossings between the two media, yet they touch on the complexity of the image-text and provide a springboard for my investigations. Thadious M. Davis suggests, “The dual communicative nature of the enterprise aims at both a verbally oriented access and a visually oriented one.” Yet, she keeps the verbal and visual separate, positing that the collaborative effort gives two “contextual realities”: that of “the individual behind the camera and the individual behind the word” (152). Maren Stange emphasizes the innovative photographic approach of DeCarava, delineating his struggle for artistic autonomy. She generally regards Hughes’s verbal intervention with DeCarava’s photos as “reductive, an injustice to the fullness of the work” (77). Yet in her closing argument, Stange examines a few one-word titles provided by DeCarava [End Page 155] to his photographs, juxtaposing them with Hughes’s verbal references, which leads her to suggest that the issue of “words” can be “reframed . . . to enable a wider range of possibility: rather than only marking weakness and inadequacy, intertextual language may act as well to legitimate, empower, and liberate” (85). Sara Blair’s discussion of the book situates it within shifting traditions of documentary reportage in Harlem. She underscores both Hughes’s “belief in the power of the image . . . to render visible and to dignify its subjects” (53) and DeCarava’s desire to “transform the expressive capacities of the medium” (55). Blair implies that their attempts to forge new modes of expression were successfully explored in their unique collaborative effort, yet she does not fully explore how this occurs. My approach goes further, reading image and text as instances of cross-fertilization.
My discussion originates in the unconventional tale of the production and publication of this book. DeCarava’s photographs were rejected by the publishing houses until Hughes created a verbal text to go along with them. This paper examines the reasons behind the rejection of DeCarava’s photographs and considers the function of the text and how it mediated the images to enable their publication. First, I discuss how DeCarava’s photographs differ from other photographs of black Americans. In order to understand the uniqueness of his work and the unwillingness to publish it, I survey standard representations of African Americans in the media, underscoring DeCarava’s distinct point of view. The text written by Hughes pitches to two disparate audiences and lends itself to different readings. Unlike Arnold Rampersad, who feels the text “match[es] the images almost perfectly” (244), I suggest that it adopts a trickster strategy, which not only appealed to the white publishers and their readership, but also spoke to African American readers through a complex network of signifying, conveying meanings that might have escaped many non-African American readers. Hughes employs techniques that disarm white resistance to the images while being geared to an African American sensibility.