Leigh Raiford. Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle.
Over the past several years the world has witnessed an onslaught of protests, riots, and uprisings. But while the Internet and social media may have helped to fuel and even organize these recent rebellions, photography has remained, and still remains closely bound to the production and dissemination of collective discontent. That role, and more specifically its complex position within the history of African American social movements, is the subject of Leigh Raiford's significant book, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle. In the pages of this impressive and deftly argued work, Raiford carefully examines the critical, yet at times contradictory role that photography played in three twentieth-century African American social movements: antilynching, civil rights, and Black Power. For each of these movements, Raiford carefully constructs a detailed narrative not only about the various ways in which the medium has been used as a site of political and social resistance, but more important, how it has been employed, using Raiford's own terminology, as a form of "critical black memory." In making this distinction, Raiford articulates a fundamental concern of her book, namely to illuminate how activists within these movements have used photography "to engage history through a critical practice of memory" (25). It is this intricate, contentious, and at times even failed relationship between race, memory, and photography, then, that is the driving force of her book.
Raiford begins her book by turning to the harrowing images of lynching which were taken at once in the service of racial oppression, and as tools for the antilynching campaigns of Ida B. Wells and the NAACP. In taking up this seemingly contradictory function of the medium, Raiford illuminates a central paradox in the use of photography within the African American freedom struggle: How can the medium, which has traditionally been used as a form of subjugation against African Americans, also function as an instrument of liberation? According to Raiford, it is precisely this struggle over meaning that has defined the use of photography within these antilynching campaigns. In their effort to reframe the meanings of these horrific images, Wells and the NAACP sought to transform the function and place of these photographs within black memory. Even if this effort is one that ultimately fails, the struggle to do so is what activates their influence within the African American freedom movement.
The contentious role of photography within the civil rights movement is the subject of Raiford's second chapter. Here she details the fascinating history of the SNCC Photo Agency and the ever-evolving role that the medium played within this organization. While it is unfortunate that more images are not reproduced in this chapter, Raiford nonetheless offers a groundbreaking analysis of the "heteroscopic" function of photography within SNCC. By this term, Raiford highlights the ways in which photography itself becomes a source of "anxiety" for SNCC as the organization begins to shift its focus as well as its audience while its photographers also begin to question the medium's place and artistic function within the movement. In calling attention to this fraught relationship between SNCC and the medium of photography, Raiford articulates "a shift from black visual modernity to a black visual postmodernity" (20). In short, through SNCC, we see how photography's seemingly unitary ability to bear witness to African American social movements becomes increasingly more complicated and heterogeneous.
The ways photography functioned as a site of struggle and negotiation within these African American social movements is further detailed in Raiford's third chapter, which examines how the image of the Black Panther Party (BPP) was both articulated and contested in and through the medium of photography. In this chapter, Raiford interrogates the performative nature of the BPP's visualization of the black body and more specifically how they used photography, in the words of Jean Genet, to "[attack] first by sight" (149). While Raiford looks to Guy Debord's notion of the spectacle to provide the theoretical backbone for this chapter, it seems that Daniel Boorstin's notion of a "pseudo-event" would have been an equally compelling, if not U. S.-based, conceptualization through which to also situate the BPP's intriguing and complex relationship to the mass media. Moreover, it was disappointing that the 1970 New York magazine cover photograph by Carl Fischer that depicts three well-dressed white women raising their black gloved fists in the black power salute was mentioned only in passing. Its relationship to another equally fascinating image by Fischer--discussed by Raiford later in her chapter--that was published in the same year for the cover of Esquire magazine seemed ripe for consideration especially in terms of Raiford's concluding remarks about the ways in which the collages of Emory Douglas serve to undermine photography's truth value, and thus compel viewers to view the BPP, and by extension, the black body, under a different set of visual terms.
Raiford concludes her book with a consideration of four recent museum exhibitions that have to varying degrees commemorated the three African American social movements detailed in her book. She turns to these exhibitions for several reasons, the most important of which is her larger interest in the ways in which these exhibitions offer themselves as sites of "a critical black memory that allows for a reactivation of activism in the present through an engagement with the past, one that provides a living context rather than a reified set of fossils" (231). It is this "living context"--a term coined by John Berger in his 1978 essay "Uses of Photography"--that most informs Raiford's discussion of these exhibitions as she considers how the photographs from these social movements have been revived as well as interrogated largely through their placement within a broader context, whether it be an installation design, an archive, or even an artist's work. But in needing to be appended by such a "living context," what is implied about the nature of photography and especially its assumed objectivity and so-called privileged relationship to the real? Ralford ends her book with exactly this same question when she calls for a "continued and vigilant recognition of the limitations of the medium" (236). Given the extent to which the subjectivity, both real and imaginary, of African Americans has and continues to be constructed and disseminated in terms of the truth value of photography, it would seem that this question is one of the most critical that Raiford poses in her book, since it speaks to the power that the medium at once extends and denies as well as renders visible and conceals. It is this understanding of the uncertainty, and even indifference of photography that make the political stakes of the medium so crucial to the African American freedom struggle and to black self-representation more generally, and it is also what makes the arguments in Raiford's book so meaningful, both then and now.
Reviewed by Erina Duganne, Texas State University
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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