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WasafariThe author is to be commended for the level of sophistication she brings to the debate on representation and 'race'.
— Helen Mears
The Harlem riot of 1935 not only signaled the end of the Harlem Renaissance; it made black America's cultural capital an icon for the challenges of American modernity. Luring photographers interested in socially conscious, journalistic, and aesthetic representation, post-Renaissance Harlem helped give rise to America's full-blown image culture and its definitive genre, documentary. The images made there in turn became critical to the work of black writers seeking to reinvent literary forms. Harlem Crossroads is the first book to examine their deep, sustained engagements with photographic practices.
Arguing for Harlem as a crossroads between writers and the image, Sara Blair explores its power for canonical writers, whose work was profoundly responsive to the changing meanings and uses of photographs. She examines literary engagements with photography from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond, among them the collaboration of Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, Richard Wright's uses of Farm Security Administration archives, James Baldwin's work with Richard Avedon, and Lorraine Hansberry's responses to civil rights images. Drawing on extensive archival work and featuring images never before published, Blair opens strikingly new views of the work of major literary figures, including Ralph Ellison's photography and its role in shaping his landmark novel Invisible Man, and Wright's uses of camera work to position himself as a modernist and postwar writer. Harlem Crossroads opens new possibilities for understanding the entangled histories of literature and the photograph, as it argues for the centrality of black writers to cultural experimentation throughout the twentieth century.
"[A] remarkable accomplishment...Worthwhile for these illustrations alone, the snapshots from the now distant past preserved forgotten Harlem tableaus...And when you factor in the ingenious fashion in which Sara Blair matches these pictures with the works of African-American literary giants, Harlem Crossroads adds up to a masterpiece making a noteworthy cultural contribution."—Kam Williams, African American Literature Book Club
"This rich, insightful study chronicles the import of photography in African American letters from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era. Through meticulous documentation, Blair argues that the photographic record of the African American experience informed the literary and creative genius of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, John Oliver Killens, and Toni Morrison, among others....Ample photographs accompany the felicitous narrative, making this a useful resource not only for literature but also for anthropology, sociology, history, and photography."—A.J. Guillaume, Jr., Choice
"Blair's text stands at the forefront of scholarship that resists academic compartmentalization and attends to the actual social practices of artists and writers. . . . As a work that draws together literary and photographic criticism, it offers clearheaded readings of particular textual passages and engages with a larger narrative about the development of the documentary photographic tradition. . . . Thanks to Blair, photographic Harlem becomes the imaginative crossroads for issues of literary and visual representation, of cross-cultural collaboration, and of creative response to white 'othering' of minority communities."—Katharine Capshaw Smith, The Journal of American History
"Sara Blair's book is . . . a mighty contribution to photographic and literary studies, and one can only despair in the increasingly difficult task of including images whose flagrant absence in certain chapters can only be due to excessive copyright and publishing cost. The disappointment of the missing illustrations is largely compensated by the satisfaction of the ones that did make it into the volume."—Anne Crémieux, Transatlantica
"We can thank Blair for sketching out a broad future research agenda for historians that will be enhanced by her own lucid analysis of the complicated role played by images in conjunction with literary texts in struggles for black self-representation and Jewish antiracism in mid-twentieth-century New York."—Tamar Carroll, H-Net Reviews
"Harlem Crossroads is an admirably well-organized, thoughtful, and readable book. . . . There is no doubt that it makes a compelling case for the crucial role played by photography and Harlem in the 'self-imagination, cultural politics, and literary work' of African-American writers of the twentieth century."—Clifford Endres, Journal of American Studies of Turkey
"The author is to be commended for the level of sophistication she brings to the debate on representation and 'race'."—Helen Mears, Wasafari
"It would be difficult to overstate Sara Blair's achievement in Harlem Crossroads. . . . [T]he book offers a compelling and original entree into a rich and under examined set of cultural crossings. . . . It will not be an easy model to follow, for it will require critics to develop Blair's exceptional skills as a reader of verbal and visual texts and adjudicator of the competing claims of aesthetics, ideology, and history."—Elizabeth Abel, Modern Philology
Blair (English, Univ. of Michigan) examines the relationship between literature and photography from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond, highlighting the collaboration of Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, as well as James Baldwin and Richard Avedon, and offering Lorraine Hansberry's responses to civil rights images.
On March 20, 1935, readers of newspapers across the United States were greeted with news of an unprecedented event: the outbreak the previous evening in black America's cultural capital of what the elder statesman Adam Clayton Powell wryly called Harlem's "first great riot." As Powell recognized, what made the event a "first" (if not "great") was its inversion of the structure, omnipresent in a burgeoning American modernity at least since Reconstruction, of white-on-black violence. If the widespread destruction of white-owned Harlem property that ensued was not exactly payback for decades of white aggression and mob violence from Brownsville, Atlanta, and Houston to Tulsa and Springfield, Illinois, and many points between, it was a form of notice to white America that the old dispensations had become a Thing of the past. Powell's sense not just of history but of precedent being made-"first" implies iterations to follow-is prevalent in journalistic documentation of the event, particularly in its prominently featured photographs. How is this new fact of American modernity to be imaged and, by implication, managed or imagined?
In considering that question, we might usefully focus on one widely reproduced image of the1935 outbreak, an image at once representative and suggestive (figure I.1). The photograph features a paddy wagon full of African Americans (all those visible are men; some are obviously injured) who have been taken into police custody. Shot at point-blank range, exploiting in its handling of light and tonality a certain shock effect, the image nonetheless conveys something of the social complexities attendant on its making. Tightly framing its subjects with the receding horizontal lines of the vehicle's interior and the diagonal patterning on the doors' protective grillwork, the composition emphasizes the orderly containment of black men's bodies in postures of resignation and distress; note the formal regularity established in the play of the men's folded hands and headgear. Absent a directive caption, the shot tenders uncertainty about their status; they are booked as looters but imaged, at least potentially, as victims. Yet in the context of an interwar mass readership (presumptively white), this uncertainty is itself pointed. Whether its subjects are read as criminals or potential objects of sympathy, the image emphasizes the power of modern social agencies-not least the documentary camera-to manage social disorder.
In connection with this image we might usefully consider a second, similar yet strikingly different in effect (figure I.2). It too was shot by an anonymous photojournalist and circulated widely in the mainstream and African American presses; it too can fairly be said to represent the visual record from which it is drawn: eyewitness photographs of the second "great riot" in Harlem on August 2, 1943. This time (Powell was prescient), the civil unrest was extensive, resulting in multiple fatalities and millions of dollars in damage to white-owned businesses; it brought home the raw fact of persistent social inequality heightened by wartime mobilization. But the context of escalating retributive or social action seems curiously at odds with the tenor of the photograph. Indeed, absent explicit captioning or textual accompaniment, and in spite of the prominence of nightsticks, a viewer encountering this image might understandably fail to identify its subject as violent social disorder.
In lieu of bloody or bandaged men in postures of submission, an attractive young woman smiles openly at the camera, part of a group of style-conscious women balancing boxes of hosiery and other consumer goods (one shopping bag is emblazoned with the logo "Modesse") as they are escorted by police. If their destination is presumably once again the paddy wagon, the affective logic has shifted considerably; in a parody of gallantry, one of the officers appears to assist his detainee with her packages as they cross the street. This difference is not, however, entirely an effect of the shot's focus on women. The photographic record of the 1943 outbreak contains its share of more-predictable riot images (burning cars, injured passersby), but it also includes a host of others in which groups of adolescent boys and young men parade insouciantly in looted blond wigs, or in top hats and tails vastly too large, in the mode of Harlem's signature zoot suit (figure I.3). Perhaps it would be hasty to call such gestures revolution, and perforce they would not, in 1943, be televised. But they were clearly being made available, even self-consciously staged, for photographic observers.
How might we account for the differences in cultural logic implied by these images? The most powerful social fact registered in the 1935 "great riot," as in its documentation, was the end of the Harlem Renaissance era; in the wake of its cart wheeling, high-flying optimism, and of the economic expansiveness that underwrote it, remained only the sobering realities of what residents north of 110th Street called the Raw Deal. And when "thousands of curious white visitors thronged Harlem's sidewalks" on the evening after the 1935 outbreak, according to a New York Times report, their racial tourism was no longer predicated on the kinds of engagement, however problematic, associated with the heyday of the Renaissance. Now, "visitors" were mainly on hand to view the shocking evidence of seething unrest, communist agitation, and racial retribution, in a landscape "alive with resentful Negroes." Years before any recognition of the second ghetto as such, Harlem was taking shape, in image and in fact, as a new kind of urban space and icon: inner city, social underground, a complex legacy and a representational challenge.
The most striking photographs of the 1943 event can be said to suggest an awareness of the growing role of the image in this transformation, and of the changing contract between the documenting camera and its subjects, particularly in Harlem. However determined to strike a blow against white ownership of local trade and the blatant fact of unequal treatment in housing and employment, Harlem citizens who took to the wartime streets were enacting their desire for a share in American modernity for a host of watching eyes. Throughout the frenzied hours of disorder, the heart of Harlem-the broad boulevard of Seventh Avenue-served as the runway for a variety of "surreal" tableaux; in effect it became "a ridiculous fashion show"-"the most colossal Negro picnic ever seen"-whose participants onlookers were invited to record. In this encounter, agency photographers, photojournalists, and amateurs alike confronted a new kind of social spectacle and fact; Harlem became the occasion for what we might call a riot of images, conspicuously new in tone and affect. They premised a newly iconic Harlem, at once metonymic of America's modernity and revelatory of its social failings. And in so doing, they instanced the growing power accorded the camera as a mode of documenting and knowing America-and no less of belonging to it.
The images of Harlem riot, the riot of Harlem images, thus implicate-as they helped propel-a broader cultural shift of central moment to the readings that follow. Between 1935 and 1943, America was giving birth to a full-blown image culture, largely experienced and transacted in the definitive genre of the era: documentary. Although the origins of documentary image making were of much longer reach, the national ascendancy of that genre-which may be defined for my purposes as the attempt, commercial or socially conscious, to record the events, affective life, material culture, or local practices of specific communities-began in earnest in the United States in the mid1930s, at about the moment of Harlem's first riot. That moment also marked the advent of a differently explosive phenomenon, the so-called Leica revolution: the development of high-quality, portable 35 mm handheld cameras, roll film, and lightweight flash equipment that enabled rapid and sequential shooting under uncontrolled or quickly changing conditions (like those prevailing during civil unrest).
These technological breakthroughs not only shifted the ground of the photographic encounter, lifting it out of the studio and onto the street; they also, as I will argue in more detail later, significantly altered the ontology of the photographic image, which was no longer premised on a cult of memorial or the mode of nostalgia. Relocated to the wayward, anonymous thoroughfares of the city, at a moment of sharply heightened interest in the material circumstances of ordinary Americans, the portable camera became the privileged apparatus for documentary-and more broadly social-seeing. By the mid 1930s, photographic images produced on site in urban venues had played a part in the visual archive for almost three-quarters of a century. But the advent of the new portable technology within this specific social context, where it was being shaped to a host of liberal-managerial and commercial uses, significantly altered the terms and potential meaning of the documentary image. Training itself on the epochal realities of everyday life, photography framed them for national consumption and meditation, and thereby powerfully shaped modern American sentiment, class relations, racial regimes, and national ideals.
What one historian calls the "dramaturgical" quality of the 1943 Harlem outbreak is, in other words, powerful testimony to the gathering power of visuality, and in particular of the documentary photographic record, in the interwar period. Indeed, the two "great riots" can be seen to bookend a series of events that chart the spreading reach of the photographic image as an ideological vehicle and as an aesthetic object. In November 1936, the media tycoon Henry R. Luce shrewdly capitalized on the new photographic technologies to found "an entirely new publishing venture": the "picture magazine," exemplified by the wildly successful weekly Life. Within a year and a half of its launching, the journal had achieved an unprecedented circulation of seventeen million readers, all seduced by its distinctive cocktail of news, gossip, and spectacle-what the critic Bernard DeVoto shrewdly called "equal parts of the decapitated Chinaman, the flogged Negro, the surgically explored peritoneum, and the rapidly slipping chemise." For the first time in media history, the photograph, or what Luce called "the photographic essay"-the conjoining of "naturalistic," "unposed," "honest" images with narrative analysis, oral testimony, and directive captions-had become the essential engine of mass communication. The cover of Life's inaugural issue featured an image by the documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White (a monumentalizing shot of an early New Deal success, the Fort Peck dam in Montana) that launched the journal's visual style and catapulted Bourke-White herself to meteoric fortune. A few months later, in collaboration with the writer Erskine Caldwell, Bourke-White published a photo-text documentary volume titled You Have Seen Their Faces. It became an instant sensation and the model (and antimodel) for a spate of photo-text books featuring documentary images, including the modernist classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Meanwhile, in 1935, Rexford Tugwell, the director of the quintessential New Deal agency later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA), had formed a special "historical" unit to create a photographic archive of forgotten Americans-and of the federal rehabilitation projects that were, thanks to liberal ideology, bringing "relief" to the displaced, the poverty-stricken, the illiterate, and the unfed. Over the next five years, picture magazines such as Fortune, Life, Look, Today, and Nation's Business as well as innumerable garden-variety national and regional journals became voracious clients of the FSA and other photo archives. By 1940, the FSA's Historical Section alone was placing some 1,406 images per month in such commercial vehicles. As even this brief sketch suggests, and as photo historical scholarship has emphasized, documentary image making under the sign of modernity not only penetrated to but defined the coalescing realms of mass media, New Deal state building, and postwar consumerism. No wonder that it played such a significant role in shaping the responses of Harlem's inhabitants to their own political disenfranchisement and social marginality. What is surprising-or as yet unacknowledged-is the degree to which real and iconic Harlem shaped the development and uses of documentary, not only as a photographic practice but as a set of representational possibilities, both visual and literary. The evolving interests of documentary practice in all its forms were varied, and its practitioners were fluidly positioned on a cultural field encompassing radical socialism, nation building, Stalinism, and every other socially conscious stripe. But they shared to a remarkable degree an interest in Harlem as a site of encounter, an emblem of the challenge of representing American modernity. In the wake of the 1935 riot, at the moment of photography's ascendancy as a cultural agency and a form of art, Harlem became a photographic proving ground. The self-taught, left-leaning members of the New York Photo League worked there regularly beginning in the mid-1930s; the picture press founded by Luce also predicated its power to slake a definitively modern thirst for sensation on its ability to provide viewers with a gallery of images to which Harlem is literally central: "Farmer faces, mining faces, faces of rugged individualists, Harlem faces, hopeful faces, tired old faces, smart night club faces ...-the faces of the U.S." Throughout the 1940s and 1950s and beyond, for socially conscious, photojournalistic, and experimental photographers alike, Harlem remained a special provocation, a site that afforded charged visual opportunities, spectacles, evidence, found objects, and decisive moments.
Harlem after its first great riot-which is to say, Harlem after the Renaissance-thus profoundly shaped representational practices and conventions at midcentury, in photographic texts and beyond, as image makers, writers, and others sought to explore its everyday life in the name of marketable shock, making it new, or making social change. For some of these observers, the appeal was not (or not only) the scandal of conditions on the ground north of 110th Street. To be sure, the hard facts of daily life in Harlem-site of the most densely populated housing tract in Manhattan, the highest rates of infant mortality in the city, and a structural unemployment rate that was, even during the Depression, significantly higher than that of any other population or community-were of precisely the sort to attract liberal-managerial zeal. But for certain observers, Harlem as a photographic proving ground offered a unique opportunity to meditate on the very conditions of documentary encounter: what powers accrued to the camera and the photographer's gaze; what kinds of social transactions produce a documentary text, and how they are represented, aestheticized, or repressed within it; how the drive for formal nuance and complexity serves or negates the representation of human and social being.
Excerpted from Harlem Crossroads by Sara Blair
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations ix
Introduction: A Riot of Images: Harlem and the Pursuit of Modernity 1
Chapter One: Documenting Harlem: Images and Afterlives 19
Chapter Two: From Black Voices to Black Power: Richard Wright and the Trial of Documentary 61
Chapter Three: Ralph Ellison, Photographer 112
Chapter Four: Photo-Text Capital: James Baldwin, Richard Avedon, and the Uses of Harlem 160
Chapter Five: Dodging and Burning: The Writer and the Image after the Civil Rights Era 198
Coda: Looking Back: Toni Morrison and the Return to Plato's Cave 252