Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 17, 2019
Tanya Sheehan Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor University Park: Penn State University Press, 2018. 216 pp.; 80 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780271081106)

In her compelling social history of photography, Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor, Tanya Sheehan reaches beyond photographs and photographers to examine humor books, minstrel shows, satirical illustrations, advertising, and print culture to reveal the ways that early photographic discourses using humor constructed concepts of race and photographic practice. Across five chapters of case studies, Sheehan demonstrates how written, performed, and sketched humor about photography and jokes made with photographs became avenues for the dehumanization of black and indigenous peoples as well as a route to forge and assert whiteness. Continuing a discursive inquiry into early photography’s social roles in the United States that Sheehan developed in her first book, Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth Century America, the introduction makes clear that Sheehan evaluates humor for its social meanings. Sheehan aims to go beyond compendiums of photographic humor by Heinz K. Henisch and Bridget A. Henisch and Rolf Krauss by investigating what these jokes meant for race, citizenship, and subjectivity, concerns she has also explored in her recent edited volumes Photography and Migration (2018), Photography and Its Origins (2015), and Photography, History, Difference (2014), as well as in her many instructive essays on photography and US racial identity.

Sheehan focuses on US black/white racial dynamics as they played out regionally within the United States and in other parts of the English-speaking world during the first century of photography, with the first two chapters utilizing transnational approaches to American visual culture. Chapter 1 examines satirical magazine cartoons and a compilation of jokes about photography published in London in 1855. (Material in this chapter also appeared in Sheehan’s article “Comical Conflations: Racial Identity and the Science of Photography,” in Photography and Culture 4, July 2011.) Sheehan considers how photographic humor played on early photography’s novel technical aspects, especially those that required a reversal of white and black color values. The accidental darkening of white skin by silver nitrate, a chemical used to develop photographs, and the shock of white sitters appearing black in the photographic negative were frequent conceits of base antiblack jokes. Sheehan draws out the ways that mid-nineteenth-century humorists used these white/black photographic reversals to relate photography to serious international discussions about race, particularly transnational abolition movements and racial “science,” despite their lowbrow positions.

Making a strong case for the merits of interdisciplinary and transmedia studies, chapter 2 considers photography’s place within transnational blackface minstrelsy. Sheehan traces the proliferation and evolution of “The Darkey Photographer,” a blackface minstrel trope about a “black” photographer who continuously fails to understand and operate the camera, thus purportedly demonstrating black people’s inherent ignorance and unfitness for modernity. Sheehan notes multiple versions of the farce as it moved from its first known appearance in Dublin-born Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana in New York in 1859 to an 1863 makeshift production by Union soldiers held in a Confederate prison, to the trope’s circulation through British colonies for over fifty years during which local performances recast the “darkey” photographer to fit their reigning colonial hierarchies of race. Sheehan discusses the malleability of blackface in different contexts, showing how the failure to operate the camera became a potent symbol of domination through the solicitation of laughter.

This chapter provides a welcome model of how to analyze the entwining of antiblack and anti-indigenous rhetorics as a transnational imperialist project. Sheehan centers the agency of nonwhite peoples in her critical dismantling of these racist ideologies and in her incorporation of black and indigenous photographers’ counterrepresentation across time. She deftly uses black New Orleanian Arthur P. Bedou’s incredible photograph (circa 1910) of a black photographer embedded within a smartly dressed crowd at a Booker T. Washington speech and contemporary Worimi photographer Genevieve Grieves’s sly unmasking of the staging of anthropological photography to refute the denial of nonwhite agency behind the camera.

Sheehan draws from landmark histories of African American photography by Deborah Willis, bell hooks, and Shawn Michelle Smith as well as from the rich literature on minstrelsy, particularly by Eric Lott, for methodological and interpretative strategies appropriate to a social history of race and cultural production grounded in nineteenth-century stereotypes. In some ways, the book is most in dialogue with these histories of African American representation. Yet, as a work of critical race studies, Study in Black and White intervenes in general histories of photography by emphasizing the production of racialized social difference. In the third chapter, Sheehan adapts an earlier essay (“Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile,” in Feeling Photography, Duke University Press, 2014) to provide an alternative history of the photographic smile, looking earlier and broader than the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, which is frequently credited for the ubiquitous toothy grin. Using affect theory, Sheehan reconstructs what smiling for the camera meant for a range of social identities and the varied significance of the control of emotions in front of the lens.

Building on postcard studies by Brooke Baldwin and Wayne Martin Mellinger, the fourth chapter considers how photography’s iconicity enabled postcards of black people intended to be funny and sentimental to become scenes of racial identification and failed empathy. She pays special attention to postcards depicting black children in rural settings, including the popular trope of positioning black children, particularly black boys, near alligators using collage. Perhaps the most troubling images in the book are reproduced at roughly original postcard scale, leaving intact the cruelty of the images of black children in peril paired with frivolous missives. The chapter becomes a meditation on how photographs can mediate self and other, in particular the ways that black bodies have been proxies for whiteness to assert and define itself often by humorous contrast. Sheehan carefully differentiates these white senders’ identities by class, citizenship, and region, showing how these positionalities conditioned their particular investments in whiteness and thus their understanding of the images of black children, but does not address gender. Could white women’s participation in the cult of childhood or sentimental vogues have drawn them perversely to the images of black children in danger? How might the gender of the imaged children have shaped the various fantasies on offer to viewers?

Sheehan marshals contemporary artists of color who address the racial violence undergirding canonical Western art to provide a critical response to troubling historical material at the end of several chapters. Sheehan’s strongest pairing of a contemporary artist’s response to earlier forms of racial humor appears in the last chapter, in which she reads early twentieth-century African American snapshot albums with An Audience/Rhapsody, Kara Walker’s 2014 video documentation of primarily black visitors taking selfies with her controversial installation in the Brooklyn Domino Sugar Factory, A Subtlety (2014). Sheehan spends considerable time on—and provides six full pages of reproductions of—the photographic album of Tuskegee Institute student and amateur photographer George Brashear, spotlighting his intimate, proud, and classed self-construction. Sheehan reads the early twentieth-century middle-class black subject knowingly posing with watermelon, and the self-conscious engagement of the monumentalized trope of black hypersexuality in Walker’s mammy-sphinx, for what they can say about unheroic black agency, complex affective relationships to racism, and nonprofessional photographic creativity. Homing in on the circulation of antiblack racist humor within black private lives and personal photographs, Sheehan develops an account of the repurposing of racist tropes by black actors which requires the presence of the antiblack joke rather than disappearing the joke within objection and critique. The controversy around Howardena Pindell and Betye Saar’s 1998 campaign against Kara Walker, Robert Colescott, and Michael Ray Charles (though the latter two are left of out of Sheehan’s account entirely) and Nathan Irvin Huggins’s argument that African Americans who performed in blackface did so with self-conscious criticality instruct Sheehan’s thinking. Unfortunately, the reader is treated to this illuminating discussion that functions as a brief literature review on humor and racial construction only on the very last pages of the book.

Not all of Sheehan’s uses of contemporary art are as convincing as her discussion of Walker. Sheehan explains that she includes contemporary art to remind viewers of the urgency of these issues in the present and “of the political value of asking critical questions about racist humor and its audiences” (10). This seems to sell short her own shrewd historicization and persuasive argumentation that so effectively make these historical discussions relevant to her contemporary reader. Moreover, her treatments of contemporary artworks appear at the end of the chapters as a coda to the historical material, which does not fully historicize the contemporary work and sometimes flattens its complexity or overdetermines its meanings.

Study in Black and White brings together such a wide array of historical material with a range of distinct methodologies that it can be hard to keep track of its larger arguments. The book lacks a formal conclusion, which could have reiterated the links between the individually strong but staccato chapters. However, the book’s many insights into the racial character of early photography seen through the lens of humor (particularly chapters 1 and 3) are of significance to historians of photography for their observations about subjectivity and modernity. Readers of American art and visual culture interested in critical race studies, transnational exchange, and the movement of ideas between media, particularly performance and visual art, will benefit from Sheehan’s historically grounded and convincing accounts that offer new perspectives on US racial discourse within and through photography.

Rebecca Giordano
PhD Student, University of Pittsburgh