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At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen

At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen

by Shawn Michelle Smith

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The advent of photography revolutionized perception, making visible what was once impossible to see with the human eye. In At the Edge of Sight, Shawn Michelle Smith engages these dynamics of seeing and not seeing, focusing attention as much on absence as presence, on the invisible as the visible. Exploring the limits of photography and vision, she asks: What


The advent of photography revolutionized perception, making visible what was once impossible to see with the human eye. In At the Edge of Sight, Shawn Michelle Smith engages these dynamics of seeing and not seeing, focusing attention as much on absence as presence, on the invisible as the visible. Exploring the limits of photography and vision, she asks: What fails to register photographically, and what remains beyond the frame? What is hidden by design, and what is obscured by cultural blindness? Smith studies manifestations of photography's brush with the unseen in her own photographic work and across the wide-ranging images of early American photographers, including F. Holland Day, Eadweard Muybridge, Andrew J. Russell, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, and Augustus Washington. She concludes by showing how concerns raised in the nineteenth century remain pertinent today in the photographs of Abu Ghraib. Ultimately, Smith explores the capacity of photography to reveal what remains beyond the edge of sight.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A beautifully written and deeply original book, At the Edge of Sight integrates historical and theoretical sophistication with the author's distinguished practice of photography in very new ways. Shawn Michelle Smith investigates the medium's patterns of blindness. This negative potential—learning to observe what one is not seeing—is revolutionary, and its profound, peculiar, uncanny force is beautifully invoked throughout."—Laura Wexler, author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism

"Shawn Michelle Smith is our foremost scholar of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American photography. In this book, she engages with Benjamin's notion of the optical unconscious to think through what's at the 'edge of sight' in the work of photographers and theorists, an approach that allows her to bring together, successfully, a wide range of insights and political formations."—Elspeth H. Brown, author of The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884–1929

The New Inquiry - Jenna Brager
"Smith works to expand the field of vision of the photograph, beyond the limitations of the frame. She asks, what is hidden at the edges of photographs?.... I am a sympathetic reader. I too glut myself with old photographs, scanning and enlarging, searching for meaning in a blurred hand, a shadow without identifiable source, a mouth captured mid-word.”
Visual Studies - Jelena Stojkovic
At the Edge of Sight achieves an agreeable balance between the beauty of prose and the difficulty of subject matter and is therefore valuable not only for its critical insights but also for its accessible presentational style. Furthermore, Smith accompanies several chapters with her own artworks, which adds a personal note to the writing. The title thus integrates archival research, critical writing with photography and arts practice resulting in a work that offers rewarding general reading as well as useful classroom material."
Choice - C. Chiarenza
“This is a solid invitation to rethink one’s own—and history’s—understanding of photography’s vast presence and influence on life. Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers."
Journal of American History - Martha Sandweiss
 "A provocative idea about the visual and cultural limitations of photography and a model for how to analyze photographs as complex historical documents."
Journal of American Studies - Marcy J. Dinius
“Given this persuasive combination of photographic theory, analysis and practice with history and politics, At the Edge of Sight should appeal not just to art historians and others invested in photographic theory and history, but more broadly to scholars and readers interested in American studies, visual culture, and US history.”

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At the Edge of Sight


By Shawn Michelle Smith

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5486-4



In his influential study of photography, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes famously makes himself the measure of photographic meaning. The book is his attempt "to formulate the fundamental feature" of photography "starting from a few personal impulses" (8–9). In other words, Barthes seeks to discover the essential characteristics of photography through his own particular responses to images. It is this profoundly personal treatment of photography that lends Camera Lucida both its most evocative power and its most frustrating limitations.

Barthes's text has been tremendously important and generative, both theoretically and methodologically, for photography scholars. As his work has demonstrated, the personal can be a powerful point of departure for critical analysis, but as feminist scholars have insisted for decades, "the personal is political." Reconsidering Barthes's individual and idiosyncratic path to the universal in Camera Lucida reveals the political import of his "personal impulses." A close reading of the text suggests that many of Barthes's most important insights are informed by complicated, and sometimes vexing, personal-political inclinations. Indeed, Barthes's very conception of photography is laden with anxieties about race and reproduction.

Barthes's attempts to define the punctum consistently register a sensation of racial or sexual inquietude. Further, although the punctum is triggered by the photograph, it ultimately has little to do with the image itself. It is an inexplicable response called forth by a photograph, and its troubling, unsettling effect is always a shock and surprise. Barthes argues that the punctum "is a kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see" (59), and for him, the punctum is consistently that detail, that something in a photograph, that triggers a relay of thoughts and emotions back into his personal history. The punctum is the trace that launches Barthes beyond the that-has-been of the photograph, beyond the photograph's referential denotation, beyond what can be seen, and into his own memory and experience. The punctum unsettles the fixity of the image, making it available to Barthes's private narrative.

The Punctum

Barthes defines the punctum in distinction to the studium. As many scholars have rehearsed, he suggests that the studium includes the cultural knowledge that informs one's reading of a photograph; the studium is shaped by "a certain training" (26) that effects a culturally prescribed reading of a given visual field. The punctum is a much more personal response to certain details in the photograph that "wound" or pierce an individual viewer, punctuating, or breaking through the trained reading of the studium (25–27). Barthes proclaims, "In order to perceive the punctum, no analysis would be of any use to me." He thereby suggests that the punctum cannot be codified or predicted for any individual viewer. As readers of Barthes's text, however, we can assess the examples he uses to describe the punctum, and note the subtle patterns that inform them.

In a salient example, Barthes explains the workings of the punctum through his reaction to a photograph by James VanDerZee, a group portrait made in 1926 (see figure 1.1). His studium description of the image is notably condescending: he states that the photograph "utters respectability, family life, conformism, Sunday best, an effort of social advancement in order to assume the White Man's attributes (an effort touching by reason of its naïveté)" (43). Barthes's explanation of the studium is laden with a paternal racism that readers are asked to ignore in pursuit of that which really interests him, the punctum. He calls upon the studium as if it is apparent, transparent, as if this lovely formal portrait could not be read in any other way, as if all readers would share his bemused reaction to the image and its subjects. While Barthes's reading might certainly be attributed to a predictable set of European cultural codes, readers are not asked to "see" those codes as part and parcel of the studium, but instead to see through them to the meaning Barthes presumes. In other words, Camera Lucida asks readers to view a race-based paternalism as natural, or beside the point, rather than as a culturally codified part of the studium to be put under examination.

The foundation from which Barthes moves to a discussion of the punctum, his studium reading of the photograph by VanDerZee, is thus perplexing, and his extended rumination on the punctum vis-à-vis this photograph is also curious. Considering the image further, Barthes proposes that what truly interests him in the image, the punctum, the details that prick him, are the strapped pumps worn by the woman who stands in the photograph. He notes: "Strange to say ... this particular punctum arouses great sympathy in me, almost a kind of tenderness" (43). Here the shiny shoes of an unnamed woman provide the inexplicable something that compels him and captures his imagination. But then the punctum shifts. Recalling the photograph in a later explanation of the punctum as latent, as the detail that haunts the viewer only after the image itself is no longer under view, only after it has been transformed into a visual memory, Barthes muses: "Reading Van der Zee's photograph, I thought I had discerned what moved me: the strapped pumps of the black woman in her Sunday best; but this photograph has worked within me, and later on I realized that the real punctum was the necklace she was wearing; for (no doubt) it was this same necklace (a slender ribbon of braided gold) which I had seen worn by someone in my own family, and which, once she died, remained shut up in a family box of old jewelry (this sister of my father never married, lived with her mother as an old maid, and I had always been saddened whenever I thought of her dreary life). I had just realized that however immediate and incisive it was, the punctum could accommodate a certain latency (but never any scrutiny)" (53).

In Barthes's memory, a woman's strapped pumps transmute into the punctum of her necklace, "a slender ribbon of braided gold" that resembles a necklace worn by Barthes's aunt. And yet, if one refuses to rely on Barthes's recollection of the VanDerZee photograph, and turns to look at it again, one finds that both of the women in the photograph wear necklaces, but they are pearl necklaces, not the ribbons of braided gold that prick Barthes. What, then, is the punctum? Barthes says, "It is what I add to the photograph," but it is also "what is nonetheless already there." And yet here it would seem that "what is there" in the photograph, the actual detail (the pearl necklace), can be obfuscated by what Barthes brings to the photograph (the ribbon of braided gold). That which pierces the surface of the photograph may not be visible in the image itself. Indeed, the punctum may refer to an entirely subjective signification system.

Surely Barthes's failure to remember precisely the attributes of a piece of jewelry is a slight offense; it is, however, indicative of a much more fundamental interpretive slippage, whereby personal connotation can efface representational denotation through the mechanism of the punctum. Gold ribbons displace pearl necklaces, and French aunts efface African American women. One is left to wonder whether this erasure, effected by the punctum, is in part a result of the studium, of a race-based paternalism that can disregard an African American woman's self-representation as trite.

The people represented in VanDerZee's photograph are, in fact, the maternal aunts and uncle of their photographer—Mattie, Estelle, and David Osterhout. But Barthes's musings are of little use in discerning this. In fact, in his response to this image he sidesteps his most powerful insight into the distinguishing characteristics of photographic signification, the that-has-been, the undeniable referentiality of the photograph, the uncanny presence of its subject. His punctum reaction to the photograph effaces and replaces those depicted with a personal revelation, obscuring the indexicality of the photograph with a memory that might have been evoked by any other sign system. The punctum evades the photograph itself, enclosing Barthes in a solipsistic reverie. In making himself (and his memories) the measure of photographic meaning, Barthes obfuscates the presence of other historical subjects, and in so doing disregards the evocative, provoking presence, or present absence, of those represented on photographic film. It would seem that the race-based paternalism registered in his studium reading enables Barthes to devalue those who have been, subsuming them under himself, under his own personal history, under the inadequate prick of the punctum.

The Photograph, the Mask, the Slave

Although the portrait by VanDerZee is the image Barthes returns to again and again, it is not the only photograph of African Americans he calls upon to define the fundamental features of photography. In his discussion of Richard Avedon's portrait, taken in 1963, of William Casby, a man who was "born a slave," Barthes proclaims to see "the essence of slavery ... laid bare" (34), and also to understand photographic meaning as a kind of mask. Barthes argues that the photograph means nothing, that it communicates only that-has-been, unless it becomes a mask, an abstraction greater than a particular subject, a type divorced from an individual, a culturally translated symbol. If one recalls the language he used to describe the photographic sign in earlier studies, the "message without a code" signifies only to the degree to which it can be abstracted and, in fact, codified. It cannot enter the world of signs proper unless its specificity is transformed. In Barthes's reading, the portrait of William Casby enters the realm of meaning as it comes to signify "slave," and ceases to register a singular face. In other words, Barthes collapses William Casby under the sign of slave, seeing in this portrait not a man who must have lived most of his life as an autonomous subject, but instead "the essence of slavery laid bare." In Barthes's reading, a subject is transformed into an object; in Frederick Douglass's famous words, "a man is made into a slave." Barthes then uses the objectification of Casby to comment on the nature of photographic meaning; photographs become readable through a similar process of abstraction and categorization. The photograph enters meaning as its specific subject is transformed into a cultural object.

Elsewhere in Camera Lucida, this process of objectification troubles Barthes. Indeed, it particularly disturbs him when he thinks about his own photographic portraits. As Jane Gallop has recently noted, Barthes very rarely considers photographs of himself in Camera Lucida, choosing instead the role of spectator, of viewer, of the self as the politically autonomous subject authorized to look. Musing upon the process of being photographed, Barthes says, "The Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object" (14). Resisting such objectification, Barthes proclaims: "It is my political right to be a subject which I must protect" (15). The political right of subjecthood is, of course, precisely what is denied to the enslaved; he or she is not legally recognized as a subject, but as an object.

In Barthes's analysis, the photograph is in some ways equated with the slave; the cultural meaning of both is accorded by the extent to which they function as objects. Thus Barthes's choice of the William Casby portrait is particularly telling, for it amplifies the objectification that is central to Barthes's experience of the photographic process, and central to his description of photographic meaning. For Barthes, the slave figures as the objectified individual that most explicitly emblematizes photography's transformation of private subjects into public objects—the slave is the objectified subject par excellence. Through the portrait of William Casby, Barthes transfers to enslaved men and women the position of the objectified that he resists for himself. Maintaining his own political right to be a subject, Barthes collapses William Casby into the category of the photographed that signifies slave.


Slavery surfaces again in Barthes's articulation of the photographic sign's most unique characteristic, its indexical testimonial, that-has-been. One of the images that registers most powerfully for him the very ontology of photography, this that-has-been, is a photograph of a slave market that he cut from a magazine as a child and carefully saved, a photograph that "showed a slave market: the slavemaster, in a hat, standing; the slaves, in loincloths, sitting." The image provoked the child Barthes's "horror and fascination," for as a photograph it proclaimed with "certainty that such a thing had existed" (80).

According to Barthes, the photographic sign, unlike the linguistic sign, first exists as both a temporal and a tactile fact—the photograph records light rays reflected off an object, impressing themselves onto photographic film in a fraction of a second. "The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent" (80). While the photograph may not be able, without textual interpretation, to tell us much more about the subject it makes visible, it undeniably testifies—that-has-been. Through the magic of light and chemistry, "that," as it existed for a fraction of a second, impressed itself on film. This incontrovertible presence is what fascinated and horrified Barthes about the photograph of the slave market: the photograph gave evidence of slavery, proving its existence with certainty, as Barthes says, "without mediation" (80). In other words, the photograph made slavery uniquely present and even palpable; it impressed the fact of slavery into the time and space of the child Barthes's consciousness.

Following his brief discussion of the photograph of the slave market, Barthes notes a secondary effect of the photograph's power to proclaim that-has-been, namely the sense that the viewer is literally touched by the subject photographed. "From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.... A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed" (80–81). The light that touches the surface of the subject photographed, captured on film, also touches the viewer, rebounding as it were, in Barthes's imagination, from subject, to photograph, to viewer. Perhaps this then underscores what is so shocking, for Barthes, about the photograph of the slave market, for it not only testifies to the existence of slavery, it also touches him; in his imagination, he shares a skin with the enslaved men and women. In this provocative shared corporeality, Barthes's own position as a free, white, self-possessed European viewer is unsettled, for his "shared skin" metonymically links him with slavery, blackness, and objectification under a white gaze. He achieves for a moment, perhaps, a recognition of what Frantz Fanon called the racial epidermal schema of colonial and postcolonial Europe, in which the black man's subjectivity is subsumed under the sign of his skin. The shared skin that links Barthes to enslaved people must unsettle his own sense of (political) self-possession, reminding him of that which he refuses, namely his own potential to be objectified. But even as the photograph instills anxiety, it also enables him to pass off the position of the objectified onto others. The shared skin that might force a recognition of his own fragmentation is finally overcome by the logics of differentiation that reinforce Barthes's white subjectivity in distinction to black objects. Ultimately, the sameness of shared skin glimpsed in photographic indexicality is psychically repressed.

Excerpted from At the Edge of Sight by Shawn Michelle Smith. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Shawn Michelle Smith is Associate Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (also published by Duke University Press) and American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture; coauthor of Lynching Photographs; and coeditor of Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (also published by Duke University Press).

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