I have been researching race and modernist photography looking at the work of photographers Man Ray (1890-1976), Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), and Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). The photographic portraits that they created of their friends and peers, the so-called American Moderns, document a collaborative effort to visualize modernism on the part of both the photographers and their subjects. The portraits reveal how the members of America’s early twentieth-century avant-garde embodied new modes of consciousness, feeling, and living.
The visual representation of the personal chic of these men and women coupled with the stylistic innovations of the photographs allowed Modernism to be envisaged. Such images established the prototype for how the human figure would come to be represented in the mass media, so they provide crucial insight into how concepts of the self, identity politics and aesthetics were negotiated during the interwar era.
Building on the premise that an Africanist presence was integral for the racialized dynamics of American identity formation, I read these photographic portraits of American Moderns against the grain of their engagement with blackness. Their lives and works have been well documented and the subject of much scholarship, but only recently have these studies begun to address issues of race and the role of African American culture as a significant trope of Modernism.
The photographers under consideration and a significant number of their sitters drew upon African American life when creating what would become seminal works in the visual, literary and performing arts, including Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Congo (1914), Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones (1920), Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter (1925), George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935), and Martha Graham’s dance American Document (1938).
This project demonstrates how photography functioned as a visual technology suited to modernist fashioning; the interplay between black and white and light and shadow inherent to the medium provided the formal language to articulate a new aesthetic while simultaneously serving as a metaphor for the role that race played in the construction of the American subject, both black and white.