New Introduction to Talking In Pictures

This material gathered here in my blog "Talking in Pictures" has been taking a slow turn in the course of its construction in the direction of including more varied kinds of visual materials.

I started with a focus on photography primarily--because so many of my current ideas about visual culture, especially since the completion of my Ph.D. in Cinema Studies on "Passing, Lynching and Jim Crow: A Genealogy of Race, Gender and U.S. Visual Culture, 1895-1927" in 1999, comes from the increasing availability of photography by and of blacks online and elsewhere.  Especially crucial was the exhibition and accompanying text "To Conserve a Legacy" in 2000, about which I will have more to say in a series of posts from that time.

But the other part of the picture of black visual culture is fine art--in particular the image of the black in western art and African American fine art--and race in film. Of course, I was always limited by the lack of general access to such materials. The internet and digital techniques in the publication and reproduction of images has completely changed that situation in these early years of the 21st century.

I am feeling more and more prepared now, particularly as I have begun to construct a course on Black Visual Culture at the CUNY Graduate Center and at the M.A. level at the City College of New York, designed primarily to provide a generic introduction to the idea of the image of the black throughout Western Culture, to begin to ponder a general perspective on the matter.

Earlier remarks concerning the importance of photographic images follow. It seems to me these words are equally applicable to fine art and cinematic images of race:

"In preparation for a book about images--mostly photographs but some art and illustrations--in which race is a discernible object sometimes explicitly as would be the case with the works of such famous black photographers as Roy de Carava, James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks, or as would be less transparently so such as in the case with images in which race may be apparently absent, such as in Walker Evans' photographs of the white sharecropper families in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it is my intention to combine the accepted canon of American photography with less widely known and acclaimed works of photography, and to reorient the canon in favor of images documenting the lives and histories of the American people rather than in deference to an obsolete and Euro-centric notion of aesthetic excellence.  

Why?  Not because one is right and one is wrong but because one is a great deal less interesting than the other.  

Beauty and utility in myriad and unpredictable combinations provide layers of meaning, or concentrations of meaning and narrative, which means images of this kind invariably resonate far beyond whatever real things or people are included in them.  Generally, when race is a factor, the narratives are adult and therefore are inclined toward sadness and regret rather than sentimentality and celebration.  Many people are uncomfortable with such feelings and dismiss them as negative, not uplifting. But such images at their worst have many things to tell us of a forensic nature and at their best are sublime, frozen shadows trembling with the knowledge of the past, caught between life and death.  

The main thing is that we have not begun to exhaust the nature of the wisdom these photographs can impart concerning "race," or the colors and textures of hair, skin, muscle and bone and our various historical interpretations of their purpose and meaning.  That such images may reintroduce you to your long lost kin and can be used in a genealogical manner (as I am doing in Soul Pictures, my blog devoted to the work and life of my mother Faith Ringgold and Black Feminist Generations) is only one small facet of the possibilities.  As Du Bois famously predicted, the 20th would be the century of the color line.  Surely every visual manifestation of the color line was documented in photography in the course of the 20th Century.  The work that remains to be done particularly in the review of American photography (as well as the scanter traces of race in fine art and early film) is to chart as well the richness of the invisible, the play of emotions and light on the face and in the world.  These are my topics herein.

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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.