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  • How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlife of Images by Sara Blair
  • Esther Romeyn (bio)

In How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlife of Images, Sara Blair extends the interest that informed her earlier work Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century (2007) to what she here calls "America's ur ghetto" (1), the Lower East Side.1 At the center of Blair's concerns is the relation of these urban spaces to American modernity, a relationship that, as Blair argues, has been mediated by photography. It is this exploration of photographic agency, and the ways in which the visual tropes it developed have framed the unfolding experience of urban modernity, thus shaping American modernism, that give Blair's work its unusually broad and refreshing scope. Her work moves far beyond the more conventional intellectual concern with the social production of urban space and social identities, to focus provocatively on these spaces as crucibles for an urban modernity and modernism(s) wrought in cultural crossings and encounters of center and periphery.

Harlem Crossroads explored Harlem as a cultural crossroads whose visual richness made the photograph the medium par excellence in whose ambit writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin honed their aesthetic sensibilities. In How the Other Half Looks Blair continues her exploration of these entangled histories of urban space, photography, and literature, zeroing in on the image repertoire forged in the Lower East Side as a space of encounter. This image repertoire is a response to the "urgently modern" problem of "managing social difference and change" (1) with which the Lower East Side [End Page 235] became synonymous. The problem of legibility in the face of radical urban heterogeneity was confronted, Blair and others have argued, in the first instance by a visual impulse: to make visible. Initially, legibility required the accompaniment of visual representations of the ghetto with transcriptions that signaled, to genteel audiences, that the potentially threatening heterogeneity of the urban underworld (captured in Victorian tropes of darkness and light) would be amenable to social management and urban reform.

The technological innovations of photography and location shots, in tandem with innovations in modes of representation, however, gradually introduced a new relation between visual and social space in which the photographic and filmic gaze was sutured to the gaze of the spectator, and overt moral framing made way for the invisible framing central to the reality effect of the documentary mode. Not surprising, it was the ghetto and the Lower East Side that emerged, as Amy Kaplan has put it, as the "touchstone of the real."2 This "real" however was captured in a decisively double take. As the bourgeois gaze turned from the "vanishing frontier" (and the vanishing American Indian) to the urban wilderness, it beheld in the Lower East Side both a new, thoroughly urban and heterogeneous American futurity and a temporal disjunction that placed its inhabitants outside the realm of the "modern."

This doubleness owed much to the persistence of the ethnographic "picturesque" mode of seeing honed previously on the subject of the Native American. The prism of a thoroughly racialized typology assumed the continuity of subjects and spaces they inhabited, and froze the subjects of its gaze in a temporal register belonging to the past. It captured the immigrant inhabitants in what Blair calls a "habit of arrest" (13), a static and atavistic moment, discontinuous with modernity. This mode of seeing, in a "self-fulfilling prophecy" (9), brought the Lower East Side into being as an icon of American modernity. Embedded in the mapping of the Lower East Side and its inhabitants as "avatars" (5) of the underbelly of rapid industrialization and globalization was an oscillation between spectacle and specter, visual excitement and threatening excess, futurity and past, which named this urban space as paradigmatic of the "being in time" of modernity. It shaped an enduring image repertoire, which Blair, in the various chapters of the...


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pp. 235-240
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