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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 194-195



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Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. By Laura Wexler. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 363 pp. $49.95/$24.95 paper.

In her study of the role of women in U.S. photojournalism at the turn of the twentieth century, Laura Wexler enacts a feminist criticism that moves beyond a mere valuing of women's contributions to a "nonessentialist theory of gender" (9). Wexler acknowledges the achievements of white middle-class women whose photographs created a broader vision of American life and whose challenge of patriarchal assumptions about women's work enlarged the possibilities for other women of their race and class. But it is precisely this racial and class identity that is at the core of Wexler's critique of their work. Wexler argues that the first women to attain significant careers as photojournalists were able to achieve success precisely because they shared "spectatorial privilege" with men (90). Like their male counterparts, these women used "the innocent eye" of domestic sentiment to foreground images that concealed the brutality and hostility underlying the social and political relationships of the era (6). Averting their gaze from the suffering of former slaves, colonized peoples, and working-class immigrants, these photographers failed to confront the consequences of nineteenth-century oppression and industrialization. Because their work reinforced structures of domination and subordination, it helped to justify imperial aggression. Wexler turns her own gaze to traces in the photographs that were invisible to turn-of-the-century viewers. Through a thoughtful, contextualized reading of these images, she exposes the "soul murder" of the oppressor and reveals the "hatred, fear, collusion, resistance, and mimicry" of the oppressed (7).

Expanding the notion of domesticity beyond the home to other sites, Wexler opens Chapter One with Frances Benjamin Johnston's transformations of military scenes into domestic visions. Assigned to capture Admiral George Dewey's heroic image following his controversial defeat of the Spanish navy in the Philippines, Johnston boarded his ship and ultimately created a tableaux that depicted the admiral and his sailors relaxing at "home" (32). Photograph after photograph shows strong, clean white men—she omitted the men of color—playing, eating, reading, and sleeping. With no evidence of the horrors of battle, these sentimental images promoted the idea of "war as peace" (34). While a male photographer also fostered this narrative, Johnston offered a unique "cover for imperial aggression" (49): if it [End Page 194] was acceptable for a "lady" to be on a war ship, then the warship and all that it signified must be acceptable as well. Through insightful analyses such as these, Wexler explains the oxymoron in her title, Tender Violence : "If you had domesticity you couldn't really have brutality" (54).

In Chapter Two Wexler locates the origins of this domestic vision in the post-Civil War family photograph album, which mirrored a theme prevalent in the sentimental fiction of the era: the notion that slavery did no harm. Photographs of former female slaves, now known as "mammies," often presented these women in respectful, dignified poses; however Wexler also points to their usefulness in easing the conscience and reasserting the upper-class domination of the white male head of the household. In the next two chapters, Wexler turns her attention to the boarding schools whose charge was to domesticate former slaves and "savages." Both chapters show how photographic images of African American and Native American students were intended to "sublimate all marks of domestic racial struggle into the appearance of social harmony" (129), yet the images still show signs of resistance to objectification. The final three chapters examine how Gertrude Käsebier, Alice Austen, and Jessie Tarbox Beals wittingly and unwittingly exploited and misrepresented their Native, immigrant, and colonized subjects. Some of Wexler's most compelling analyses are drawn from her juxtaposition of these images with photographs of the artists' own family and friends. The latter, for example, uphold the ideal of the heroic or angelic white mother, whereas such representations are virtually nonexistent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 194-195
Launched on MUSE
2003-11-18
Open Access
No
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