Getting to Know Photography

May 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm 2 comments

Because I’m studying for my minor exam in  photography, I haven’t had much time to blog.  However, I thought I’d share some highlights from my studies on portraiture and ethnography.

Plumbe National Daguerrian Gallery, unidentified man, daguerreotype, Boston, c. 19th century, author's collection

A couple of the most provocative essays I’ve read so far:
Laura Wexler’s “Seeing Sentiment: Photography, Race, and the Innocent Eye” in Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Edited by Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, Helene Moglen. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1997.
Wexler suggests that within photography discourse there’s been a refusal to critically engage  social issues. She calls this phenomenon “anekphrasis,” the opposite of ekphrasis, the description of a work of art.  To begin to tackle this issue, Wexler examines several nineteenth-century photographs made by George Cook and his son Heustis Cook.  She argues that even though their photographs of former slaves have been reprinted several times, few scholars have critically studied them. Wexler offers a particularly detailed and convincing interpretation of George Cook’s photograph of his, then enslaved, nursemaid holding his infant son (Heustis Cook). Her reading challenges dominant notions of mother and child imagery, interrogates gender and racial constructions, expands how we recognize and define acts of resistance, and elucidates the importance of social and historical context in photography studies.
Favorite passage from Wexler’s essay: “Photography has always been a constitutive force not merely reflecting but actively determining the social spaces in which we live our lives.” (180)

Brian Wallis’ “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes.” Smithsonian American Art 9, 2 (Summer 1995): 38-61.
Wallis outlines how scientist Louis Agassiz became a proponent of  polygenesis, the theory that people originated from various separate races.  In 1850 Agassiz went to  a South Carolina plantation to study the slave population. To support his theory with visual evidence, he hired a local photographer, Joseph T. Zealy, to make daguerreotype images of seven slaves.  In opposition with Alan Trachtenberg, Wallis argues that Agassiz’s images, which include frontal and profile views of the subjects in varying states of undress, are not portraits, but ethnographic types. (Some of the images are available on the website – Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, search for keyword: Zealy)  In the conclusion, Wallis discusses how these images can be retrieved from the ethnographic realm. He mentions how contemporary photographer Carrie Mae Weems re-contextualized the images in Carrie Mae Weems Reacts to “Hidden Witnesses,” a collaborative exhibition at the J.Paul Getty Museum in 1995.  For the show, Weems re-photographed and enlarged Agassiz’s daguerreotype images and placed a red tint and short texts over the resulting images.  She exhibited her updated reproductions in wall frames along with photographs she made of contemporary South Carolinian culture. Wallis argues that Weems’ appropriation of Agassiz’s work subverted the original intentions and personalized the subjects.

Best book I’ve read so far:
Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Edited by Richard Bolton. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.  This seminal book contains fourteen essays that enlarge and explore definitions of photography.
Authors include: Richard Bolton, Douglas Crimp, Christopher Phillips, Benjamin Buchloh, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Catherine Lord, Deborah Bright, Sally Stein, Jan Zita Grover, Carol Squires, Esther Parada, Rosalind Krauss, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula.
(Available on Amazon)

Photo facts:
From the very early days of photography, around 1840, law enforcement embraced the medium.  Today’s mug shot is the descendent of early identification portraits first made with the daguerreotype process.
Good references on criminal photography:

  • Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” In Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Richard Bolton, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
  • Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1988.

Entry filed under: Photography. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. terryownby  |  July 4, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    You may find Molly Rogers’ article on slave daguerreotypes of interest: Rogers, M. (2006). “The Slave Daguerreotypes of the Peabody Museum: Scientific Meaning and Utility.” History of Photography, (30)1, p. 39.

    Good luck with your doctorate studies!

    Terry Ownby, PhD

    • 2. artstuffmatters  |  July 4, 2011 at 9:51 pm

      Thank you for the information. I’ll definitely look for it.


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