The Arts

Representing Race: Why Do Images Matter?

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt

In the wake of “Black Panther” and the unveiling of the Obamas’ official portraits, there has been a renewed discussion of the importance of black representation in visual culture. What we mean, of course, is not simply an increase in the number of black bodies visible in movies, tv shows, music videos, magazines, and so on, but rather an important shift in how these bodies are being represented.

As an art historian, I’m particularly interested in how images circulate in society and impact our habits and expectations of each other. As a Christian, I’m interested in what our moral responsibility is when we look at highly charged images. So, in a series of three posts, I’d like to explore why images matter when it comes to race, how we can evaluate images through multiple lenses, and, finally, how we might practice restorative looking when engaging difficult images from the past.

Images and the Origins of Scientific Racism

The very notion of race as a social category is inextricably intertwined with visual representation. When 19th-century scientists wanted to prove racial inferiority or the theory of polygenesis, they turned to images to make their point. In 1839, for example, Samuel Morton published comparative charts that aligned African skulls with apes. In 1854 and 1857, Josiah Nott and George Gliddon released large, lavishly illustrated volumes that used images to prove the existence of a racial hierarchy.

But it was perhaps photography, more than any other medium, that impacted American notions of race. Artist and theorist Coco Fusco writes, “Rather than recording the existence of race, photography produced race as a visualizable fact.” Anthropologists created a set of visual tropes that codified racial difference. By emphasizing certain physical characteristics, posing bodies in particular ways, and framing the image with text, photographs offered “proof” of racial difference.

The example of Louis Agassiz supports this claim. The Swiss naturalist, working at Harvard University, commissioned photographs of South Carolina slaves. The slaves were stripped and forced to pose in frontal, profile, and rear views for the camera. The cool, seemingly objective photographs allowed for the sustained and detached scrutiny of black bodies. But, crucially, Agassiz was not just looking to catalogue differences; he identified and interpreted differences within a racialized, white supremacist hierarchy. These photographs thus served as visual proof of blacks’ fundamental inferiority to whites, a conclusion Agassiz expected to be plainly legible to anyone who looked at the images.

Images as Control

Racial hierarchies were visually enforced through both subtle and overt means. In the early 19th century, the Long Island artist William Sidney Mount achieved great acclaim for his “genre paintings”: naturalistic scenes of everyday, country life. Free black figures appear regularly in Mount’s best-known paintings, and he has been praised for his dignified portrayals of African Americans. As some scholars have pointed out, however, Mount’s paintings consistently depict blacks in subservient positions or on the literal margins of the painting. In Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride, for example, a black servant pokes his head in through the door, another tends to the fire, and a third plays the fiddle for a mass of white revelers. Their cheerfulness at the edges of the scene –and, by extension, society – suggests that a peaceful, racially integrated society is possible as long as blacks accept the “natural” order of things and stay in their place.

But images could also do much more vicious policing. In the late 19th and early 20th century, lynching became a powerful tool of racial control in the United States, particularly in the South. Racial lynchings were public spectacles, intended to terrorize blacks and assert white dominance. Many of these lynchings were photographed, but not for the purpose of exposing the crime. Instead, the images were turned into postcards and sold as souvenirs to attendees. In one particularly chilling example from Temple, Texas, in 1915, a man mailed a postcard of the dangling, burned body of Will Stanley to his parents. “This is the Barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe,” he wrote on the back.

Photographs like these, proudly annotated, crisscrossed the country via the U.S. Postal Service. The effect was not only the emboldening of white supremacist but a kind of visual script for black Americans. As Shawn Smith has observed, James Cameron – who miraculously survived a lynching in Marion, Indiana in 1930 – described his experience in photographic terms; the mob became a “flat image” and “film negatives.” These image of racial terror even shaped individuals’ personal experiences of trauma.

Images for Equality

It should come as no surprise that photographs also played a key role in abolition and civil rights efforts. Frederick Douglass remains the most-photographed person of the 19th century, urgently crafting a public vision of what black dignity looked like. As many scholars have noted, photography is also closely tied to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the mid-20th century. Mamie Till chose to photograph and publish photographs of her son’s brutally disfigured body as visual proof of the reality of brutal racism in the South. “They had to see what I had seen. The whole nation had to bear witness to this,” she said. Ultimately, only black periodicals published the gut-wrenching photographs, but they inspired a new swell of activism by young men and women. Later, images of protestors being attacked by police dogs, sprayed by fire hoses, or beaten by state troopers shocked white readers of Life magazine and national newspapers.

But as Martin Berger has argued, these photographs followed a specific formula of black bodies in distress as helpless supplicants, dependent on white intercession to save them from white abuse. Civil Rights photographs of active black bodies were largely relegated to the black press because they departed from the accepted format and could not be absorbed into a mutating form of white supremacy.

Images as an Archive

These images from the past matter because new images are neither created nor viewed in a vacuum. They are always referencing other images as a means of accruing – or sometimes undercutting – authority.

As viewers, we each carry a mental archive of images. We might not be able to name all of the images, and some of them might only exist as half-remembered shadows, but nevertheles,s we are constantly interpreting and categorizing images in relationship to those things which we have previously seen. We might liken our archive to a Google Image search in our brains. If we input something as innocuous as “sunset,” a host of highly saturated, glowing photographs appear, all of them vaguely familiar and all of them reinforcing what a “good” or “photo-worthy” sunset look like. But the archive can also be more socially charged. A search for “women’s hair,” for example, exclusively returns images of white women with long, silky hair, suggesting that such hair is the de facto standard.

Our visual archives are particularly potent when it comes to identifying and policing bodies. Images – particularly those of people on the social margins – teach us what heroism, morality, and fame should look like, and they do so largely through contrast. This is what is desirable and powerful; that is what is not.

black artAll of these images – the stripped slaves, the happy-go-lucky black musician in William Sidney Mount’s painting, the desecrated bodies of lynching victims, the supine bodies of black protestors – influence not only how we understand the past but what we might expect from ourselves and our neighbor today. The representation of powerful, dark-skinned women and active, emotionally-complex men in “Black Panther,” of a thoughtful but authoritative black man in Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, and of a regal, warm black woman in Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama serve as a kind of counter-archive. They work to show the gaps in dominant visual culture, and to invert a history of dehumanization. To ignore the power of this archive and the impact of visual representation more broadly can have grave implications for us as we seek to walk in justice and love as full image-bearers.

In our next post, we will explore some practical ways that we can engage with images from this archive.

1 Comment

  1. Z

    Great article, looking forward to the rest in the series. I’m curious if the author has any thoughts on the Dana Schutz *Open Casket* painting from the 2017 Whitney Biennial. From what I recall, the author is white, but the painting is a depiction of Emmett Till’s open casket…prompting debate over, in Zadie Smith’s words, “who owns black pain.” An immensely complicated issue that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for some time.

    PS: Go Scots.

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