American History Reinvented > part 2: Pseudo Event - the Politics of Appropriation [photographs]
Photo Racism in the Visual Archive

by Lynda Day

published in American History Reinvented (New York: Aperture, 1989), pp. 26-45.

Art and photography are manifested in the contextual environment of their culture. In the hundred and fifty years since the invention of photography it is not surprising to find that the shape and identity of the medium’s archive have been molded by racism and have either excluded or distorted images of African Americans.

In “Photo Racism in Visual Culture,” Warren Neidich creates a series of interconnecting metaphors that highlight the duplicity of racism in our shared historical/visual consciousness. His images sensitize us to the complicity in the ideological racism of our past to which we succumb when we unquestioningly accept the photographic archive as “true.” That archive has been constituted through a process of manipulation and perversion that Neidich recapitulates in the photographs here. Contriving and then appropriating his own images, he creates the process of archival exclusion that has given us our shared, distorted vision of African Americans and other minorities as bit players in American life.

At first, these photographs seem strange to the viewer, who has trouble reading them. What world do they represent? What African-American history can they be showing us? Despite their mid-19th-century clothing, hairstyles, furnishings, and settings, the viewer knows that they are false. These cannot be reproductions of vintage prints. First, each image contains some anachronism from the present. Second, many of them seem more snapshot-like than the frozen, lifeless photographs of the actual period (necessarily still lifes, even when they show people, since all action had to be halted for the slow camera exposure). Yet it is not Neidich’s intention to make fakes. He seeks instead to create feelings of ambiguity, of ambivalence toward not only these particular images but the photographic history they simulate.

The strangeness we perceive in these images is mostly the absence of overt racism in their composition and subject matter. For images of blacks as bourgeois are in themselves anachronistic in the mainstream of the contemporary American mind-set. Indeed, the photographic archive is of little use to African-American historians. Though widely perceived as “objective” visual snippets of reality, the photographs preserved in our institutional repositories of history and culture are in fact unreliable witnesses to the past, for the reflect…participate in…a powerful cultural bias in which is implicit the purposeful and conscious oppression of Africa’s descendants in America. When African Americans appear at all in standard collections, the messages communicated about them manifest the interests of the European-American majority. The visual archive of the African-American experience reflects the power relations of dominance and subordination that have always marked black life in America. In fact, the photographic archive is a subjective rendering of periods and events as seen through the eyes of the dominant castle.

In 1987, I curated an exhibition at the African American Museum of Nassau County, in Hempstead, Long Island, entitled “The World of Out Grandparents: African-Americans on Long Island 1880-1920.” Images from 1850-1880 were nonexistent. A search for images of black Americans in local photographic archives clearly demonstrated the marginalization of blacks in this particular rendition of history. The vast majority of the photographs were of wealthy whites, their homes and activities. The next great category comprised photographs of average European Americans in family groups or on outings. There were no photographs of black families, even though they represented ten percent of the population of Long Island throughout the 19th century. Some images of white families showed one or two blacks, presumably apprentices or retainers of some kind; banished to the edges of groups of happy European Americans out picnicking, driving in the country, at a bicycle race, on a boat ride, at the train station, and so forth, most of them looked glum and unhappy. Many school photographs included a few black children, who were usually equally solemn, and wore pants too short for them or faded dresses. If one were to rely on such photographs for one’s sense of history, one would assume that there were no African-American family groups, no black faternal organizations…or church groups. Their only roles, one would think, were as servants, coachmen, nannies, and cooks to European-American families.

Further investigation did uncover images with a different point of view. The Bates-Tolliver Collection at the Jericho Public Library showed black families and some portraits. The Schomburg Collection at the New York Public Library was yet more rewarding: I found 69 cabinet cards, 84 cartes de visite, 57 stereographs, 10 daguerreotypes, 6 ambrotypes, and 83 tintypes depicting blacks of all ages and through a full spectrum of economic classes. The Moorland-Spingarn Collection at the Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the newly donated Burns Archive at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, also stretch our conception of the mid-19th-century black American. These photographs, however, are tiny in number when compared to the plethora of images that marginalize blacks, whether by showing them as subordinate or by excluding them altogether. Vital as these images are, they have left only a faint trace in history. Accessible to the historian and critic but widely unknown to the public at large, they remain outposts of the photographic landscape.

Why is it that the photography collections of mainstream museums so rarely depict 19th-century black Americans? Such pictures were certainly made: Deborah Willis Thomas, in “Black Photographers in America 1840-1900,” catalogs several hundred African-American photographers working during that period, who would surely have catered to African-American clients. But images of the black photographers were clearly less often preserved than those of their white colleagues. Why? Probably for a variety of reasons. In any case, they did not make their way into mainstream collections. In a society that considered its black citizens inferior, images of blacks were also inferior and not worthwhile to collect.

Neidich’s series in fact reflects what we in 1988 know about the realities of black life in the 1850s, not what has been preserved in the archive. His photographs reflect the current state of knowledge to the extent that it has been unfettered from the binds of 19th-century racist ideologies. The scholarship of the past fifteen years has illuminated black family life and the black participation in societal institutions of the period in spite of conscious legal and economic discrimination. Land and property ownership, clubs, fraternal organizations, black churches…all defined a rich cultural life.

The images in Neidich’s series are presented as diptychs. Each juxtaposes a reconstructed scene with an appropriate almost-twin. With Old Bethpage Village Restoration as the backdrop the left-hand images comfortable escort us back to the mid 19th century. Their historical reconstructions are generated through the use of period dress and furnishings, as well as technical alteration of the surface of the image. These left-hand photographs subvert the racism in our collective subconscious by depicting blacks as comfortably middle class. In “Family Sabbath” and “Picnic” well-dressed parents with children are enjoying their leisure together in relaxed settings. “Family Stable” shows a smiling young woman standing casually near her brother or lover, who holds the bridle of a magnificent horse. None of these is a familiar image; something seems amiss. The substitution of blacks for whites in conventional bourgeois roles acts as a punctum (in Roland Barthes’s sense) in our historical gestalt. Though the (constructed) visual facts that Neidich shows are supported by written historical records, they are in conflict with our shared visual memory. The anachronistic objects or actions woven into the images…a plastic garbage can, a contemporary magazine, a political speech…prevent the viewer from thinking that this conflict is accidental.

But what of the right-hand images? These become metonymic for the processes of archival sculpturing and exclusion. The left-hand photographs identify who is being left out of the cultural scene; the right-hand ones delineate the second-order methodologies by which the extirpations and subterfuges are effected within the archive. These methodologies are not unlike those described in Alain Jaubert’s book Le Commissariat aux archives: Les Photos qui falsifient l’ historie. In Neidich’s prints, recadrement (cropphing), retouché (retouching), mirror imaging, and magnification all conspicuously alter the original image in fundamental ways. Printed on resin-coated paper, Neidich’s right-hand images share the currency of the modern AP, UPI, or Library of Congress reproduction. The disturbing anachronistic details are removed; the images become seamless and palatable to a late-20th-century eye nurtured on the electronic daze of TV.

Three diptychs in particular elucidate the processes of gentrification and visual sculpturing. In “Auction,” the left-hand images shows four men participating in the different roles involved in the selling of a cow. The gavel is held by a black man; he is in the position of power, the controller of the sale. A top-hatted white man and his associate, another black man, are helping the process move along. A young white male dressed in coarse clothes holds the cow’s halter; he is the worker who brings the livestock from the pen to the auction block. Next we look at the right-hand image, where recadrement or cropping unravels and amends the entire tale. Rebalanced by the crop, this picture focuses on the white laborer, whose role is now ambiguous; leading the cow, he may be its owner. The black auctioneer has disappeared altogether; the second black man is pushed to the side of the image, and his previously important role has become secondary.

Through similar techniques, the meanings of “Voting Day” and “Free Soil” are likewise transformed. In one, what is on the left, a photograph of an election, with black voters, becomes on the right an ambiguous image whose action is no longer self-explanatory. These African-Americans could simply be paying their taxes. In the second work, a black politician giving a speech, on the left, is airbrushed out of history on the right. Neidich illustrates how a man whose behavior is troublesome to authority can be made to disappear from the record.

Archival sculpturing begins the moment a photograph is conceived in the mind of the photographer and continues through to the moment when it is either collected and saved for posterity, possibly in altered form, or discarded. Is there really a difference between America’s exclusion of images of blacks by blacks and the reworking of historical pictures that we find in post-Weimar Germany or Stalinist Russia? Both act to subvert visual information. Both tamper with our heritage. For if one way we know history is by its visual legacy, then the shape of the visual archive must make a powerful and lasting impression on our view of a particular time, or of the participation of a particular group of people in that moment. And what of the future? As we record our own archives digitally on tape for posterity, the opportunity for perdify and misuse will be magnified. Will the 21st century relegate the photograph to a secondary role much in the same way that we have reduced the meaning of the word?

Lynda Day is Assistant professor of African history at Brooklyn College and former curator of the African American Museum of Nassau County, New York.