The Black Female Body: A Photographic History / Edition 1

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Searching for photographic images of black women, Deborah Willis and Carla Williams were startled to find them by the hundreds. In long-forgotten books, in art museums, in European and US archives and private collections, a hidden history of representation awaited discovery. The Black Female Body offers a stunning array of familiar and many virtually unknown photographs. Willis and Williams show how photographs reflected Western culture's fascination with black women's bodies, reinforcing beliefs about racial differences and hierarchies. The authors also show how the powerful images created by twentieth-century photographers increasingly challenged these false beliefs.

In the nineteenth-century, black women were rarely subjects for artistic studies but posed before the camera again and again as objects of social-scientific investigation, as exotic representatives of faraway lands. Documenting their visits to Africa, renowned European and American photographers such as Ernest Benecke, Claude-Joseph Desire Charnay, and Pierre Tremaux constructed the kinds of images that would later become associated with National Geographic magazine, presenting (partially) unclothed "natives" in order to educate Western viewers about other peoples and cultures. In startling images women of African descent, stripped of their customary clothing as well as their identity, were displayed for the armchair anthropologist or prurient viewer.

Willis and Williams relate these social-science photographs and the blatantly pornographic images of this era to those of black women as domestics and nursemaids for white children. Through the camera lens, real women embodied Jezebel or Mammy, cultural myths that made black women perpetually available to serve white society.

Throughout the book, in over 200 photographs, the authors offer counterpoints to these exploitive images. Here are nineteenth-century portraits of well dressed and beautifully coifed Creoles and artistic studies of dignified black women. Covering the entire history of the medium, the authors discuss previously unanalyzed images of black women made by celebrated photographers including Nadar, Eugene Atget, Gertrude Kasebier, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston. Here are Harlem Renaissance-era photographs of entertainer Josephine Baker and writer Zora Neale Hurston, black women celebrated as contributors to a vibrant culture. Here too are images by James VanDerZee, Carl Van Vechten, and Chester Higgins, Jr., that celebrate the beauty of black women. Documenting the long struggle for black civil rights and equal opportunity, the authors draw on politically charged images by noted photographers Lewis Hine, Gordon Parks, and Roshini Kempadoo.

The book also features contemporary masters such as Renee Cox, Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O'Grady, Joy Gregory, and Catherine Opie, whose provocative work speaks to the multiple dimensions of black women's experiences and desires. In particular, Willis and Williams direct our attention to the artists who photograph black women asserting their subjectivity, reclaiming their bodies, and rejecting the false images of the past.

The Black Female Body asks us to see familiar images in a new light and showcases the work of artists who are creating a new visual legacy. This remarkable book makes a necessary contribution to photographic and cultural history as well as an exceptional gift book and keepsake.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Rather than making broad surveys, the current trend in photo-historical research is a more narrow approach, closely examining specific groups. Willis (Reflections in Black) and Williams (The Underground Railroad, etc.) continue on this track. They concentrate not only on images of women but exclusively at the black female form in photographs beginning in the 19th century. Willis and Williams's approach is theoretical, focusing on issues of race, gender, sexuality, and social class by looking at images of the objectified black female in a variety of representations. The book is divided into four main chapters "Colonial Conquest," "The Cultural Body," "The Body Beautiful," and "Reclaiming Bodies and Images" and includes over 200 images by important photographers, such James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as by many unknowns. The book provides a fascinating view into a long-neglected and even taboo subject. Another recent text, Kathleen Thompson's The Face of Our Past: Images of Black Women from Colonial America to the Present, is similar but focuses on inspirational imagery, and Willis's earlier work Reflections in Black offers a more comprehensive survey of black photography. Still, the current volume is highly recommended for any library interested in expanding its black history, photo history, and women's studies collections. Shauna Frischkorn, Millersville Univ., PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566399289
  • Publisher: Temple University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 9.32 (w) x 12.24 (h) x 1.08 (d)

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Chapter One

La Vènus Noire

European campaigns of colonial expansion and enslavement of inhabitants of occupied lands prompted scientists, philosophers, and theologians to categorize indigenous peoples within the Western worldview. This new attention to the Other was at once paternal and protective as well as oppressive and exploitive, regarding enslaved people as property and a source of free labor rather than as human beings. Because few Europeans ever actually saw these other peoples, non-European bodies came to symbolize their geographical homelands. The female body especially bore the metaphorical weight of comparisons between women's fertility and the abundant riches of the conquered lands, "penetration" into and "conquest" of places like the "Dark Continent." In time, Europeans associated the black female body with mothering and nurturing, in part because black female slaves in Europe usually served as nursemaids and caregivers to white Europeans; in this circumstance, the black woman's image became conflated with colonial possession and domination. Similarly, the mythology of black sexuality in Western culture developed in literary romanticizations of the "savage" or primitive. The "relation between white man and native woman was similar to that between colonizer and colonized country, where exotic transgression was seen as a return to primitivism, to an immediacy of passion that Western custom had long since rejected." According to author Julio Finn, the first mention of a black woman in European poetry occurred in a fifteenth-century Portuguese anthology. Thepoet laments that his love for a slave woman has made him "'the captive of a slave, slave of a servant.'" Black women appeared for the first time in Spanish and Italian literature in the next century. By the nineteenth century this exaltation of the exotic flourished, espoused by leading French intellectuals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Rimbaud, Denis Diderot, and Charles Baudelaire. The subject of Baudelaire's poem "La Vènus Noire" is believed to be his mulatto mistress, the sometime-actress Jeanne Duval, with whom he lived for more than fourteen years.

... Bizarre Deity, dark as infernal nights,
Whose perfume mixes with. musk Arabian
Work of some Obi, Faustus, that learned man
Sorceress of ebony thighs, Child of midnights.
I prefer to all things, opium and the night.

Thy mouth's elixir, strange as a Pavane:
When towards thee my desires in a caravan
Pass thine eyes, vent-holes of thy soul's shame.
Oh pitiless Demon, pour on me less flame;
I am not the Styx to embrace thee nine times, nay ...

Duval was well known in Parisian artistic circles; Édouard Manet (French, 1832- 83) painted her portrait, La Maîtresse de Baudelaire, in 1862, which depicts her fully clothed and reclining. Although she allegedly was a prostitute, no evidence exists to support this view. Contemporary writers and artists have reclaimed Duval's voice and image. The title story in Angela Carter's (English, 194:0-92) collection, Black Venus, depicts Baudelaire and Duval's relationship from Duval's point of view, giving her the voice she was denied in the written histories. Artist Lorraine O'Grady's 1999 sixteen- diptych installation piece, The Flowers of Evil and Good, constructs a fictional dialogue in Duval's voice and juxtaposes the few surviving images of Duval with portraits of Baudelaire.

    In his novel La Femme, historian Jules Michelet (French, 1798-1874) "presented the black female as the ideal mate for the white male," her "desirable qualities includ[ing] young and forceful blood, physical beauty, fecundity, and childlike sweetness." The black woman was prized for her physical difference from European standards of beauty and her supposed sexual availability. One of the earliest examples of a sexualized, nude black female as the main subject of a European artwork is The Voyage of the Sable Venus, used to illustrate the 1781 anonymous poem "The Sable Venus; An Ode" (Illustration 1). The "Sable Venus," a figure that originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in this poem as elsewhere is a depersonalized object of colonial lust:

The loveliest limbs her form compose,
Such as her Sister VENUS chose,
In FLORENCE, where she's seen;
Both just alike, except the white,
No difference, no—none at night,
The beauteous dames between....
O Sable Queen! thy wild domain
I seek and court thy gentle reign
So soothing, soft and sweet
Where melting love, sincere delight
Fond pleasure, ready joys invite
And unpriced, rapture meet!

As a desired and desirable being, she represents the colony itself. In this instance she is Jamaica, a British colonial possession in the West Indies, and her beauty and desirability represent the island's economic and strategic value to the empire. Although the Sable Venus had many visual and literary incarnations, in time her image would be projected onto living women, in particular one South African woman.

Ethnography, Photography, and the Grand Tour

Travel to countries that very few Westerners knew firsthand beckoned adventurous Europeans. While few had the money, leisure, and daring to actually visit the colonies, the new leisure class formed a huge popular market for written accounts and photographs of foreign travel. With the introduction of photography on the continent, vividly detailed images of exotic lands and peoples became a source of entertainment and edification for Europeans and Americans. Given their accessibility in size and cost, photographs offered an ideal medium for looking at nude and provocatively dressed bodies. The daguerreotype offered a private viewing; a man or woman could easily transport images not much larger than a billfold. Viewers could contemplate the nude image in complete secrecy, thereby transforming their relationship with the subject depicted. Within a year of their introduction in 1839, the daguerreotype and paper print processes were being used in Cairo by the painter Horace Vernet and his nephew and student, Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet. They made landscapes and images of harem women, succeeding where Vice-Regent Mehmet, the harem's master, failed at his own photographic attempts to capture the exotic beauties in photographs.

    At this early stage of its development, photography was a laborious, time-consuming process, and photography of living subjects was rare. The earliest photography in Africa was concentrated in the north, the most accessible region. Even before the new medium arrived on North African shores, the potential visual appeal of the sexualized black female had been well established in paintings, drawings, and written accounts. E. Thiesson (French, active 1840s) is believed to have sailed for East Africa after photographing Botocude Indians in Brazil the previous year. In Africa he made a portrait of a white-haired native woman of Sofala, Mozambique, in Portuguese East Africa (Illustration 2). The sitter is thought to be a "Native Queen" from Xai Xai in the Zavala province. Despite the suggestion that she was a sitter of high rank, inscribed on a label affixed to the front of the daguerreotype are notations describing her by her physical characteristics: "Naturelle I.(?) Sofala. Monomoly(?) / ageé de 30 ans. / Quoique jeune encore cette femme a cheveux pred(?) entierement blancs." "Natural [as in native] I.(?) Sofala. Monomoly(?). Aged 30 years. Although still young this woman has entirely white hair." Seated in profile on a canebottomed chair, she wears a woven wrap tied just below her breasts. Thiesson describes her as though he were gathering information and this portrait were part of a photographic classification project, a way to compare her to other human beings and reduce her individuality.

    The ethnographic aesthetic of frontal, rear, and side views of a subject had developed centuries earlier in artists' anatomical studies, such as those by Petrus Camper (Dutch, 1722-89). French police official Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914) made the frontal and profile "mug shot" the backbone of his classification system for criminals in the 1880s. Bertillon, also a member of the Société d'Anthropologie de Paris and the author of Les Races Sauvages, probably intended his classification methods to document categories of race. The same technique was also used in photographing the mentally ill. The profile view became a standard tool of ethnographic photography in part because it reduced the specificity of identity, whereas the frontal pose does not differ iconographically from portraiture. But when the person is turned in profile, the skull, which does not alter with age, becomes the subject of the image, and the likeness ceases to make any claim to character or emotion. The profile is thus at once practical and pardoning, providing a categorizable likeness without the reproach of the returned gaze.

    French artists were the first and most prolific Westerners to explore Africa with the camera. In 1848-49, the writer Maxime du Camp (French, 1822-94) made the first French government-sponsored photographic survey of Egypt with the writer Gustave Flaubert (French, 1821-80). Du Camp actively photographed only during this period in the Middle East; the few photographs he made of native people were images in which his guides are used to suggest the scale of objects or landscape features. Du Camp published 125 of these images in 1852 as Egypte, Nubie, Palestine, et Syrie: dessins photographiques recueillis pendant les années 1849, 1850 et 1851, accompagnés d'un texte explicatif, said to be the first photographically illustrated travel book. Du Camp's book did not include any figure studies. Two or three years later, another French artist, Charles Marville (French, 1816-circa 1879) traveled to Algeria, where he made portrait studies of local women.

    One of the most prolific early photographers of indigenous subjects in Africa, the German-born, French-based amateur Ernest Benecke (active 1851-58), made photographs in Syria, Egypt, Nubia (now Sudan), and the Holy Land. Among the images he made from December 1851 to May 1852 are several candid images of the indigenous populations at work and rest. Benecke was primarily interested in figure studies; in them a certain self-conscious pattern of posing emerges, suggesting that the subjects themselves probably contributed little more to the image than their ability to stand still and take directions. Like many amateurs, Benecke did not continue to photograph after his grand tour. To date, there is no record of his methods for posing his subjects. His careful titling and dating suggest that he was interested in representing types in a methodical and systematic catalogue. Somewhat blurred due to the salted paper process he used, his figure studies usually pose subjects in front of quickly and crudely erected backdrops of white fabric, which establish a kind of framing device but also set up a visual contrast for the figure. Nearly all of Benecke's figure studies depict women.

    Benecke's small but significant body of work demonstrates a hierarchy of color in which social status declines with increasing blackness. Distinguishing between images of sub-Saharan Africans and images of dark-skinned Arabs or Muslims, it is clear that within image making, as in the photographer's society itself, sub-Saharan Africans were assigned the lowest, most subordinate role. By the 1850s in North Africa, the transatlantic slave trade was still thriving in the New World and much of Europe (and sub-Saharan Africans were still enslaved into the 1880s). Within the selection of portraits it is also apparent that the level of undress is directly related to the social status of the sitter. Benecke made at least two views of a Nubian warrior and his wife, "a local beauty prized for her weight" (Illustration 3). Her status as a warrior's wife is evident in the fact that she is fully clothed and poses with her husband; only her lower left calf and feet are displayed. Although both figures pose consciously, neither addresses the camera directly.

    Upon his return to France, Benecke had the photographs printed. Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard published four images, including this study of Zofia, a fully clothed Egyptian woman, titled Zofia, Femme da Caire / Habillement du Harem, made in Cairo, Egypt (Illustration 4). Benecke immediately identifies her in sexual terms for the European audience by designating her dress as that of the harem woman. It has been suggested that he set up a household during his stay in Egypt and that this "harem" woman was his concubine. Whatever his intent and understanding of her status, for him and his audience the harem conjured up "the notion of a forbidden world of women, of sexuality caged and inaccessible, at least to Western men." This notion derived from cultural myths that portrayed Middle Eastern women as possessed by powerful, "uncontrollable sexual passions" and requiring isolation from males other than their husbands. Benecke's photographs would have appealed to the same audience as that for contemporary salon paintings by artists like Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) and Jean-Leon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904), whose Orientalist style highlighted the "exotic" subject matter of the Middle East and North Africa. Although Zofia's blouse is low-cut and reveals her midriff, she remains mostly covered and is identified by a name. The pillow at her feet serves merely as a colorful prop, but it also suggests a state of repose, of recline—of her supposed role as a willing, sexually conquerable female of the mythologized harem.

    Among Benecke's images of "Esclaves Abyssinians" are a grouping of two young, unidentified, half-nude, sub-Saharan African women standing near a crouching boy (Illustration 5) and one of a girl standing alone (Illustration 6). Abyssinia, the former name of Ethiopia, was one of the African countries best known to Europeans in the nineteenth century. Unlike the warrior's wife or Zofia, the slave women and children are shown partly nude; they were least able to refuse to be photographed. The Abyssinian slave women wear only cloths draped at their waists; whether or not this was their customary state of dress, for the Western viewer they appear without protective cover, rendered defenseless before the camera's gaze. In the dual portrait, one woman's left arm is extended around the neck of the other, whose arm in turn is raised so that her hand rests on her companion's shoulder. The pose creates an oddly forced intimacy between the two women, as their touches are abruptly interrupted by a space occupied by the young boy. Why would Benecke pair them in this fashion? Even allowing that he was an amateur, the pictorial device seems strained and ineffective. Perhaps the women express a genuine gesture of friendship and affection that is made stiff and unnatural by the tedious picture-making process. The woman on the right gazes away from the camera and out of the frame, avoiding the viewer; but her right leg is crossed over the left in another convention of sexual openness, and her left hand reveals her thigh as it raises the hem of the cloth wrapped at her waist. In stark contrast to the way in which the women are comported is the tightly huddled body of the boy—closed, wary, and inaccessible.

    Common to this image and the photograph of Zofia are the stock poses prescribed by the photographer. The upraised arm serves only to lift the line of her breasts, inviting the viewer to look precisely there. In the photograph of Zofia, she leans against the backdrop on this arm, which probably helped her to keep still for the lengthy exposure. This awkward, unnatural gesture, repeated throughout Benecke's figure studies, points up the highly constructed nature of the images, no matter how casual they seem at first. The photographer clearly dictates how these women are to be pictured. Both women gaze, expressionless, directly at the photographer/viewer, though Zofia's eyes appear to be closed. She stands with her other hand on her right hip, which is thrust upward in a further suggestion of her availability. Everything about this image connotes sex simultaneously proffered and denied, much like the European male's understanding of his own relationship to the harem woman. The photograph provides the experience of possession while keeping the actual woman mysterious and at a safe remove from her would-be "master." It is promise without the possibility of fulfillment, delectation without the messiness of consummation.

    French architect-turned-photographer Pierre Trémaux (French, 1818-95) first traveled to Africa in 1847, making sketches in Algeria, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tunisia. Returning with a camera in 1853, he revisited Egypt and Tunisia, where he made his first photographs; of nine figure studies, four are of mostly nude young black women. He published images from both trips, the three-part Voyage au Soudan oriental et dans l'Afrique septentrionale ... exécutés de 1847 a 1854. Trémaux's extensive writing about his travels details his picturemaking process. "Photographing people presents great difficulties, because ... this operation cannot be performed stealthily, without letting the subject know about it; it is a matter of persuading them to pose, which they fear doing." Trémaux clearly considers the sitter and her desires only as obstacles to be overcome; slaves made good subjects presumably because they had no choice, and even free blacks were not accorded adult status, further limiting the sitter's ability to decide to be photographed. Images of naked black women or girls were deemed picturesque, not pornographic, making the black female subjects almost entirely available for possession. One of the images included in Voyage au Soudan is of a prepubescent black African girl titled Fille du Dar-Four (Illustration 7). In it the young girl, wearing only a carefully arranged straw belt around her waist that barely covers her genitalia, poses standing in front of a brick wall; clumsily framing her are two rugs/blankets draped over the top of the wall. She faces the camera, expressionless, one hand against the wall, the other tucked into the band of her belt. Just a child, she is conspicuously and uncomfortably alone in this space. In this direct, frontal posture, she is presented to the photographer/viewer as a specimen literally backed up against the wall.

    Another of these images, titled Jeune Femme Nouba/Young Nubian Woman, circa 1855, shows a slightly older girl in the same belt, kneeling with her hand resting on her upper thigh (Illustration 8). While she may have been naturally comfortable with her nudity, as has been suggested, what is important is how the audience, of whom the photographer was no doubt more conscious, would consume it. Trémaux lacked technical skill and finesse in composition; but he believed that his simple, direct, and unimaginative images had achieved a visual anthropology through the extremely narrow group of black women he presents in Voyage. "It was only with the greatest hardship did I complete the task to be able to depict representatives of some of the least-known peoples." He decontextualized his subjects, isolating them both visually and figuratively from other Africans and their environments. His images are carefully constructed, edited, and beguiling fictions. As one historian has pointed out, "one of the few certainties about these photographs is that the women were seldom in real life what they appeared to be in the photograph."

    Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay (French, 1828-1915), another noteworthy early photographer interested in anthropology, photographed the population on Madagascar, an island off the southwest coast of Africa, as part of an official French expedition in 1863. When Charnay's party left France, a pro-French prince occupied the throne in Madagascar, but by the time they arrived he had been assassinated, and the new government had reinstated an official policy of resistance to the French presence. In this hostile atmosphere Charnay made photographs of two distinct racial groups in Madagascar: the Madegasse, who were the darker-hued indigenous population of the island, and the Hova, "of Malay origin," who ruled the island. An image of the Hova queen with her attendants demonstrates the racial hierarchy; all of the attendants are darker, with more African features, than the seated queen, who, although her face is mostly covered, has decidedly Asian eyes (Illustration 9). Charnay waxed rhapsodic over the accommodating, subservient nature of the Madegasse population:

The Madegasse of the coast is of a gentle and timid disposition, faithful and devoted. As a matter of course, he acknowledges the superiority of the white man—the "Vasa" appears to him as a master who is entitled to obedience.... The Madegasse willingly accepts the yoke of servitude. The varied and light tasks of domestic life suit his tastes and he is very grateful for the little favors which he receives from his master in their daily intercourse.

Charnay made nude anthropological studies of the men and women of this population (originally published in the album Mission de 1863), which usually consisted of three figures, one posed frontally, one in profile, and the other posed with his or her back to the camera. In the photographs of the men, Charnay compares and identifies three distinct ethnic groups, thus, as Keith Davis has pointed out, negating the possibility of true ethnographic comparison. In the photographs of the women, however, he does not juxtapose representatives of different tribes, but rather gives general titles and shows seemingly similar types (Illustration 10). Perhaps Charnay considered the women unworthy of studied classification but rather more picturesque. Perhaps he did not note the same variety of "types" among the women. He left no notes on this subject. Charnay also made studies of clothed Madegasse women wearing beautiful garments of French-woven cloth that suggest a pro-French affinity (Illustration 11).

    In the late 1860s, Thomas Henry Huxley (English, 1825-95) developed a system for photographically cataloging "the various races of men comprehended within the British Empire." As historian David A. Bailey states, "The nineteenth-century anthropologists used photography as a means of surveillance to identify and control subject nations: this revealed the function of photography as a means of appropriation and control." Huxley's "photometric instructions" stated that the subject must be naked and, using a measuring scale, posed frontally "upright with 'heels together' and with the 'right arm ... outstretched horizontally, [and] the palm of the hand [turned] towards the camera.'" In addition that subject had to be posed in profile "so that the left side of the body was presented to the camera with the arm bent in a manner that did not interrupt the contours of the trunk." Four photographs, made around 1879, of a twenty-two-year-old South Australian aboriginal woman named Ellen adhered precisely to Huxley's instructions (Illustration 12). He went on to say that women should be posed so that their outstretched arm would not "interfere with the contour of the breast which is very characteristic in some races." Huxley also recommended that frontal and profile images of the subjects' heads be included. Because such images were used as tools of ethnographic classification, the subject's nudity was justified as serving scientific inquiry.


Excerpted from The Black Female Body by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams. Copyright © 2002 by Temple University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction 1
Part 1 Colonial Conquest 7
LaVenus Noire 8
Ethnography, Photography, and the Grand Tour 10
The Body at Labor 35
World's Fairs and Expositions 59
The National Geographic Aesthetic 79
Part 2 The Cultural Body 83
The Noble Body 84
The Conscious Body 89
The Artist's Model 91
Bawdy Bodies 98
The Lesbian Body 114
The Body at Labor, Revisited 117
Part 3 The Body Beautiful 139
The New Negro in Photography 140
Perception of Beauty 153
The Construction of Beauty 169
Autobiography of the Body 189
Conclusion: Reclaiming Bodies and Images 197
Notes 199
References 211
Index 219
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