I recently gave a talk at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts about the film Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash. It is an amazing film – it is definitely in my Top 10 list of all time favorites. So I thought I would share this recent video about the Gullah who are the formerly enslaved Africans featured in the film.
Slave Descendants Uphold African Roots
My CAA talk went very well according to the feedback that I received. I focused on how shadows assumed a new expressive role as a racial metaphor in modernist photography. I previously shared some of the images that I was considering. Here are some of the ones that were included in my presentation:
Kiki by Man Ray, 1926
Garbo by Clarence Sinclair Bull, 1931
Josephine Baker by Huene, 1927
The Beginning of the World by Brancusi, 1924
A made particular note of the fact that shadows ultimately acquired their own autonomy in images like this:
Anyone trying to study the role of shadow in visual representation will not find much. Victor Stoichita and Michael Baxandall have written books on the topic, plus a few articles exist. That is why I am eagerly anticipating the publication of a new book called The Cinema and Its Shadow by Alice Maurice. Not only does it deal with shadows and race, it focuses on light-based media and its formal qualities:
Moving beyond analyzing race in purely thematic or ideological terms, Maurice traces how it shaped the formal and technological means of the cinema.
This is how I approach the photographic medium. The inherent nature of the medium and its means of formal expression relies upon a race for its coherence.
I am still working on my presentation for CAA. I came across this interesting photograph of Ruby Keeler, a dancer, and one-time wife of Al Jolson, with a dance partner:
Note how the shadows operate independently of the people they are meant to reflect as in Fred Astaire’s “Bojangles in Harlem” number in Swing Time (1935) that I have mentioned in an earlier post.
It’s CAA time and I am participating in a panel called “Photography and Race.” My talk is about race and modernism in interwar photography. One key phenomenon that I have noted is that lighting and shadow take on a metaphoric role beyond their descriptive function that gives visual expression to the period’s racial imagination in new ways. Older notions of race as biology and blackness and whiteness as material properties of the body are supplanted with more elusive codes that reside in the darkness and the light. That is not to say that move traditional means of visualizing race entirely disappear but the burden of representation is removed from the body in subtle but significant ways that allow for the articulation of changing racial paradigms. The preponderance of these shadows that limn blackness makes it difficult to select which images to show in my fifteen minutes. What a dilemma! Here are some of my current objects of fascination:
Carole Lombard by Otto Dyar, 1931
Anna May Wong by Hurrell, 1938
Katherine Hepburn by Ernest Bachrach, 1935
Model Helen Lyons Wearing a Dress and Matching Cape by Boue Soeurs, in Vogue, April 1922 by Baron de Meyer
Elsa Schiaparelli by Man Ray, 1930s
Josephine Baker by Huene, 1927
Nelly van Doesburg by Man Ray, 1925
Lillian Gish by Doris Ulmann, 1930
Delores del Rio by Ernest Bachrach, 1932
This is a portrait of the actress Anna May Wong in tuxedo drag taken by Carl Van Vecthen in 1932. This image is the cornerstone of the introduction to Afrochic, the magnum opus that I hope to complete soon. I argue that this type of photographic portrait and its attendant racial dynamics is emblematic of the ways that moderns constructed their identity between the Two Worlds Wars. Intrigued…stay tuned!
Since I will never be able to include all the images that I would like into the final manuscript, I will share some of my favorites here as I work towards the completion of the manuscript.
This empty lot at 205 West 136th Street is the site of a former bookstore and cafe that catered to the black avant-garde. I just learned that my great-aunt went there back in the day. So thrilling!
To follow my earlier post, a performance by the master: