- Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity ed. by Maurice O. Wallace, Shawn Michelle Smith
Elizabeth Abel’s Signs of the Times (U of California P, 2010) analyzes photographs of signs demarking segregation according to skin color. They function as visual proof of a system of oppression. Towards the end of the book are photographs of young people defying segregation signs, and those pictures are recordings of not only the system but also reaction to it. In the new anthology Pictures and Progress, articles from eleven scholars discuss the role of photography in constructs of African American identity from the early [End Page 401] nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The photographs of the African Americans are also reactive recordings, because they capture African Americans in response to their enslavement, sexism, segregation, or other problems. The articles are well-written and provide a thorough discussion of how the first half-century of American photography shaped African American identity.
Editors Maurice O. Wallace of Duke University and Shawn Michelle Smith of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago have put together writings that relate to the ideas that the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed in the 1860s about photography. The first two of the eleven articles are specifically about Douglass. Laura Wexler’s “A More Perfect Likeness” documents the activist’s promotion of the concept of photography as a necessary means to correct gross distortions of African Americans in media. Ginger Hill’s “Rightly Viewed” concentrates on photographs of Douglass, which “assert self-possession and citizen propriety” where society denied both—“upon a black body” (49). However, Douglass’s name appears throughout the book, and the title’s allusion to his speech and the cover bearing his photograph are appropriate for this collection.
The articles collectively show how diversely African Americans implemented Douglass’s ideas. Ray Sapirstein’s “Out from Behind the Mask” interprets Hampton University’s photographs for Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poetry books as subversive critiques of “racial and cultural hierarchies” (169). Smith’s “Reproducing Black Masculinity: Thomas Askew” and Cheryl Finley’s “No More Auction Block for Me!” illustrate African American redefinitions of family through photography. In the former piece, an African American photographer’s picture of his five sons challenged contemporary notions of absent African American fatherhood, and the latter talks about pictures as a means for African Americans to record family history—not unlike a family Bible (208–209, 330–331). Wallace’s “Framing the Black Soldier” notes that photographs of African American soldiers almost helped America fulfill its promises from Reconstruction by documenting the African American “would-be citizen” (245). Leigh Radford’s “Ida B. Wells and the Shadow Archive” details the anti-lynching crusader’s reframing of others’ lynching photographs as anti-lynching propaganda.
Michael Chaney’s chapter provides clear, concise terminology for the negotiations African Americans underwent with their images. In “Mulatta Obscura” he argues that Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl pioneered ways for African American women to manipulate their images. He defines camera obscura as the intersection of “visual politics, racial history, and optic technology” that yields daguerreotype (110). Sentimentalism [End Page 402] includes “ahistorical false consciousness that depoliticizes bodies and imbues both proslavery and abolitionist ways of seeing slaves as centerpieces of . . . suffering or . . . interracial harmony” (112).
A couple of the articles appear out of place in the collection. Smith’s “Unredeemed Realities: Augustus Washington” is about African American photographer Augustus Washington’s picture of abolitionist John Brown. She argues convincingly that the photograph represented a documenting of Washington and Brown at a moment when both had yet to act upon their antislavery beliefs. The photographer took the crusader’s picture in 1840, years before Brown’s slave revolts in Kansas and Virginia. However, as an image of an abolitionist framed by a free African American, the picture serves as a foreshadowing of Douglass’s argument for photography as a...