Talking in Pictures: Race and Gender in Photography in the 20th Century

In Talking in Pictures: Race and Gender in Photography in the 20th Century, I will reflect upon the larger meaning of some of the key occasions upon which the 20th Century has fostered the accumulation of photographic images related to the accomplishments, the culture as well as the misfortunes of African Americans, and their relationship to the language such images have engendered. I am proposing in the process that the existence of a largely neglected photographic archive can contribute to the historical re-evaluation of events and personalities, as well as providing a handy and creative new way to present black history and culture in the classrooms of the nation. Simultaneously, new readings of such materials invariably offer, as well, unprecedented opportunities for readings of gender in representation and photography.
Women photographers participated substantially in the creation of photography as a popular form of expression but in the case of black women photographers, it has proven difficult thus far to document their work. Nonetheless, notions of importance in photography, given its technological basis and commercial affinity from the turn-of-the-century, remain flexible and available to myriad interpretive approaches to a degree unimaginable in other visual culture fields. Regardless of the race or gender of the photographers, themselves, white or black, male or female, gender and race were often crucial to photographic composition and perception. Or in other words, there is a sense in which the subject of the photograph participates equally in the creation of the photograph, or the shadows the past cast upon the present. t things may be, they often seem to pivot early in the century around issues of gender and racial differentiation.

The current technological revolution of the internet and computers has completely altered the availability of photographs from the first half of the 20th century. Archives and libraries, in significant numbers, have taken it upon themselves to provide massive databases of their collections on line, and also in enough occasions to make it significant, to provide computer files of the actual pictures. In some cases, these archives make available to the public photographs and negatives, which had been completely overlooked and unnoticed by scholars and historians before.  

As archival resources are being digitized and rendered available to the college student or the scholar, it remains to be seen what impact these methods will have upon aesthetic standards and modes of evaluation. The democratization of the technology is still concentrated in the hands of those with the funds to purchase such equipment, as well as the software and the internet services and the leisure which facilitate teaching and study.

Those who are in most dire need of history and culture will not necessarily find the archive and its scholars the most welcoming or encouraging. Indeed, photographic scholarship would seem to suffer from the same elitism and snobbery of all the other fields of visual culture commentary, most notably art and film criticism and history. But the major difference with photography is its numerical plenitude. With the digital revolution, the 21st century is sure to produce photographs in numbers that will entirely dwarf the resources of the 20th century. Yet, these photographs stand to be entirely different in their importance and accessibility. All the more reason, to submit the resources of the 20th century to rigorous examination, most particularly in regard to the wealth of information concentrated therein on the history of developments of race and gender concepts.

Digitalization is bound to democratize the mode of production of photography in the 21st century but what of access to the resources of the 20th? There are two ways to further disseminate the democratization process of access to the resources of the 20th. One is through the funding of computer access and services in poorer communities and schools, and their hope that readers and students will put together for themselves some modes of interpretation and criticism, perhaps out of thin air. The other way is to disseminate the techniques of access and spread the word concerning the riches of present sources in the form of books and texts as well.

This dissemination of knowledge I propose to provide to the readers of this book. Given the range of photographic occasions of race and gender, it would be impossible to do a comprehensive job of summarizing what is available worldwide. But rather I have chosen to highlight twenty or so particularly rich sources of photographic representation keyed to major events, personalites and occasions in African American history and culture. In other words, this is an introduction to race and gender in photography: its uses and interpretations.

General Surveys of Racial Images in Photography:

In terms of getting access to what lies out there, there are a number of books in the field which give some indication of the photographic resources for the study of race and gender, although not nearly enough of them in my opinion. How do you find them? The most reliable way I have found is to visit the Africana Studies section of the bookstore in which will be found, as well, whatever picture books and photographic collections there are on the subject. This collection is usually surprisingly meagre in my experience with few additions from season to season.

The present titles in this set are:

Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin, ed. The Face of our Past: Images of Black Women from Colonial America to the Present. Indiana UP, 1999;

Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture edited by Howard Dodson, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL 2002;

A Pictorial History of Black Americans by Langston Hughes and C. Eric Lincoln. Crown Fifth Edition 1973;

Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings 2000;

One More River to Cross: An African American Photograph Album by Walter Dean Myers, Harcourt 1995;

Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, The New Press, ISBN: 1-56584-266-9.

The Black Book Random House 1974.

These books rarely engage in any real discussion of how one can find more of such photographs or how the compilers of the books obtained their photographs. Such information is usually left to the exclusive domain of a photographic researcher. What they are looking for is copyright permissions for the photos used in the book. But there are two major dominions of historic photography: those still under copyright restriction, and photographs which are available to everyone either because they were never under copyright restriction (such as in the case of library and state collections) or because restriction has elapsed.

In this book, we will endeavor in particular to focus upon such photographs in the interest of providing researchers, authors, writers and those who are curious about the past with material which calls out for discussion but which is rarely discussed.

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About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.