What does it mean to see the world in black and white? How has photography as a medium shaped how we understand race? How have ideas about race shaped aesthetic practices in photography? This course explores the overlapping histories of photography and race in the nineteenth and twentieth century US.
Technologies for seeing and making sense of the world, race in a post-emancipation society and photography as a medium evolved together in the US. As the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of his era, argued in the 1860s, the new “picture-making faculty” was “a mighty power,” an effective tool for defining the identities of both enslaved and emancipated Americans. Race and photography depended on vision and on an appeal to aesthetics for this authority. Both also claimed to present rather than represent—to reveal the material world in ways unmediated by human agency.
In the contemporary moment, we no longer understand photography as a transparent medium unmediated by the agency of the photographer. We no longer argue that race is an identity that people can see. Yet photography continues through its aesthetic and documentary power to shape the meaning of race. In this course, we will examine images by photographers including James Van Der Zee, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, Danny Lyon, Roy DeCarava, Emmet Gowin, Dawoud Bey, Sally Mann, and Carrie Mae Weems. We will visit the Fralin Museum of Art and UVA’s Small Special Collections Library. And we will make our own photographs exploring the meaning of race in contemporary America.