Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

Camera Obscura After All: The Racist Writing With Light

Brownie camera

The “Brownie” box camera, designed by Frank Brownell for George Eastman.

Taking a chapter from Jacqueline Goldsby’s brilliant and disturbing book, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, entitled “Through a Different Lens: Lynching Photography at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century” as a starting point, I would like to pursue a point made by Goldsby about the role of these atrocious photographs of racist murder in what, with Paul Virilio, one might call “the logistics of perception”—so I’ll start there.[1]

Goldsby cites Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer to remind us that “the optical devices used in the nineteenth century were not invented in cultural vacuums,” but were, rather, “[p]remised on ‘conceptual structures’ that reflect ‘points of intersections where philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic discourses overlap with mechanical techniques, institutional requirements, and socio-economic forces.’ [P]hotographic equipment also presupposes an ideal viewer—an observing subject—whose cultural privileges can be inferred from (and, consequently conferred by) the ways in which a camera makes the world visible to human perception.”[2]

Goldsby goes on to say, “Thus, when considering lynching photographs and their social effects, we must approach them as artifacts that are more than transparent, self-evident documents of these events of racial murder. Indeed lynching photographs encode more than the deadly operations of white racism. The images also inscribe how practices of racial violence were used to cultivate the experience and meaning of sight itself.”[3]

This point resonates with a research project that I will only be able to sketch the outlines of here: With respect to practices of looking, there is a deep-seated dialectic, if you will, between racism and photography. Goldsby is, for very good reasons, more interested in analyzing the social dimensions, violences, and occlusions transmitted and enabled by the specific photographs and platforms she presents—and in seeing the whole heinous genre of lynching photography as a significant part of the making of American modernity—than she is interested in making general points about “photography itself.” However, we are to understand from her juxtaposition of her own claims with some of Crary’s that general points about American modernity and hence about photography are inadmissible without a consideration of racial formations. I take this implication as a key starting point for the evaluation and understanding of the social and historical emergence of a media platform. If the making of whiteness and blackness is mediated by the dynamics of photograph, then the reverse is also true: the making of photography is mediated by the dynamics of whiteness and blackness. Photography does not evolve in a vacuum; it is, to borrow from Stephen Heath, a dispositif, the social and technical as photography.[4] Thus we may expect to find that race relations—that is to say, forms of racism—may be not only at the heart of “the meaning of sight” but inscribed in the technological platforms that enable sight and, therefore, in photography itself.

Some questions: To what extent is “photography itself” a racial formation? What social dynamics have been subsumed in the reification that occurs under the sign of—and, indeed, the apparatus that is—the camera? How might one rethink Martin Jay’s scopic regimes of modernity in terms of race?[5] Or similarly, if Deleuze and Parnet are correct in asserting that a machine is historical and social, i.e., abstract, before it is technical, what kinds of statements can be made about photography that draw from and contribute to the work of critical race media theory?[6] If Stephen Heath could consider the cinematic apparatus as a dispositif—that is, “the social and the technical as cinema”—then can we return to the question of photography and the archive using the incredible momentum of the intellectual ferment of decolonization, black, minoritarian, queer, of-color, subaltern, Marxist, feminist, global South scholarship to rethink the ontology of photography and other media platforms?

Although there is no mention of cameras or photography in Harriet Jacobs’ harrowing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, within the narrative a mechanism appears that I would hypothesize shares some aspects of the abstract machine that necessarily precedes the instantiation of the concrete machines of photography. I am speaking, of course, of Jacobs’s prison, the crippling attic crawl space above her grandmother’s house where Jacobs hid from her slave-masters—immobilized and unable to stand—during the seven-year period from 1835 to 1842. Confined, as it were, in camera, by the conjunction of vectors of colonialism, political economy, racism, slavery and the law that granted to whites the legal right to hold black people as chattel, Jacobs, while under inconceivable physical duress, watched her own children grow up through a peephole she drilled in a shingle. In this social and technical construction, she observes her children through a camera obscura, unable to touch them, speak to them, or even let them know that she is alive as they face all the travails of growing up black under white supremacy.

Through social means, Jacobs is converted into a recording device, hidden from view and forced to observe the world through a pinhole in a shingle. And yet she chooses this form of social and near physical death—imprisonment—over her option on the other side of the pinhole: visibility and, thus, slavery. Reducing Jacobs as closely as possible to a pure observer on one side of the aperture, and to a pure object on the other; this horrifying assemblage—this being in camera—requires the deprivation of one’s rights to one’s body, a deprivation that itself relies on the development of a particular scopic regime. On one side, invisible observer; on the other side, abject object. This scopic regime is not incidental but is a matter of life and death; it has the power to produce metaphysical ideas about the human and nature, order and entitlement. In a racist spectrometry, persons are measured by the biochemical, light-absorbing properties of their skin—let us call it a kind of photo-graphing.

This everyday photo-graphing endemic to slavery in the United States and to racial formation itself—this constant inscription and re-inscription of black and white and color—points toward an essence of photography somewhat different than that put forth by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, a text that still passes (notwithstanding the writings of Chela Sandoval and Fred Moten) as a definitive statement on the ontology of the photograph today.[7] To cut to the chase, in Camera Lucida Barthes sets out to determine “the essence of photography… at any cost” [italics mine] and determines finally that a photograph’s noeme, its unique quality, is precisely its chemically mediated indexical transmission of a moment of Reality—what he calls the photograph’s “that has been” aspect. This is the distinctive feature of photography itself.

But we must ask: what about the costs of this determination? For Barthes, the personal cost is twofold. First, there is the cost in pain. With Camera Lucida Barthes writes a book mourning for the loss of his beloved mother, the person with whom he was most closely, indeed intensely bonded. The photograph, a very specific photograph, is a way back to her. Indeed for Barthes the Winter Garden photograph of his mother (which is not reproduced in the text) provides a way to activate (but also register the loss of) a pre-verbal, para-psychoanalytic, extrasemiotic bond of unspeakable import. And then, beyond the pain of loss there is, in the rejection of semiotic and psychoanalytic explanations for the nature of his desire for his mother, the cost to Barthes’s extraordinary intellectual career; for the book is a kind of recantation, an admission that the realm of semiotics, which he spent the better part of his life elaborating, is not adequate for the deepest questions of love, of life, and of mediation. As he concludes, the indexical character of the photograph—its relation to reality, both in the instance of the photograph and as opened by the punctum as “the prick of the Real”—delimits and indeed exceeds the terrain of semiotics. However there is, in the determination of the essence of photography yet another cost, and for the rest of us perhaps, it turns out to be the most important one.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes provides a detailed description of his own experience of being photographed, during which he feels himself physically transform. “Now once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of posing, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”[8] And then, “I don’t know how to work upon my skin from within.”[9] His account of becoming an object before the lens, of being separated from the world by the play of sociotechnical dynamics on his skin, precisely echoes—albeit in apparent ignorance—Frantz Fanon’s description in “The Fact of Blackness” of coming under the white gaze while in France: a description that read in its entirety, seems to suggest the colonial roots of existentialism and existentialist visuality. Here is just a brief excerpt:

And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. The real world challenged my claims. In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema […] On that day, completely dislocated, unable to be abroad with the other, the white man, who unmercifully imprisoned me, I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object. What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood.[10]

What, then, is the relationship between photography and modern racism? For it seems to me that something deeply hidden, repressed, or unthought inheres in the dispositif that is photographic technology. A thoroughgoing analysis of this dispositif would necessarily show connections between photography, racism, and political economy—three vectors of objectification—and ultimately should intersect with legal, psychoanalytic, imperialist, and sex-gender systems. After all, Barthes describes being photographed as if it were a process of proprietary alienation: “[T]he disturbance is ultimately one of ownership,” he says, and, “I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity. I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a microversion of death […]: I am truly becoming a specter” (13). Barthes also likens the captured light of the photograph to “a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”[11]

The large-scale archival project that these insights imply would be to establish that the parallel thus far limned between the mortification of the flesh before the lens and the mortification of the flesh under a white gaze—supported by, and indeed developing as a technology of the historical-economic violence of slavery and colonialism—are not merely analogous but are mutually constituting. A study proving that photography is itself a racial formation—following say, Goldsby, Ariella Azoulay, and Vilem Flusser, for example—would want to show that usage, form, and technical development went along a kind of simultaneous and mutually imbricated trajectory that was fully embedded in racial and racializing social practices. Vicente Rafeal’s work on census photography in the colonial Philippines as a technology of racialization comes to mind here, as well as the work of Malek Alloula, Jane Gaines, and bell hooks.[12] Each of the three latter writers explores the imbrication of photography in regimes of racist violence. Goldsby’s suggestions that the images produced also structure the meaning of sight allows us to see that the development and iterations of photographic knowledge—as well as the incorporation of that knowledge into the further development and use of the apparatus—are marked by practices of racial violence. As a modest foray into what is a potentially vast undertaking, we can show here that these parallel and seemingly autonomous regimes of racial formation, on the one hand, and photographic visibility on the other, are mutually constituitive in Barthes’ work. If this is the case, then the “essence of photography” has for many decades meant the disavowal of racism.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes makes a case for the metasemiotic “madness” of the photograph and rhetorically generates a meaningful—that is, semiotic—context for the dramatic eruption of the Real itself. He stages the emergence of “the essence of photography” as the indexical “that has been,” as well as the extremely influential theories of “the studium,” or photographic genres along with their necessarily all-too-familiar (and for Barthes, ultimately uninteresting) avenues of meaning, and of “the punctum,” which is rendered as “the prick of the Real,” “the wound,” “the puncture” of the merely semiotic by the Real—itself activated, in Barthes’ view, by certain photographs. What is crucial here is that for Barthes to produce this reality effect—that is, for him to produce these programs of apprehension—the majority of the images he uses to do this work in Camera Lucida are photographs of slaves and racialized others. This striking fact is somehow very often overlooked, as students at art schools everywhere proceed as if they were learning about a technology and not about a mode of sociality. Indeed, textual analysis of Camera Lucida shows that slavery, race and, ethnicity became the privileged tropes—the apparatus—with which to figure “the essence of photography,” for Barthes, “at any cost.” Slavery and race become the rhetorical figures, the discursive, and arguably material media for the derivation of the supposedly ontological character of a visual technology. Indeed one might say that by making racialized others the stepping stones leading to the essence of a technology, Barthes subsumes and finally disappears the historical realities of race, ethnicity, and slavery (Jews, blacks, Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans) in order to make the ahistorical reality of photography appear. At the very least, we can show that in the presumed illumination of Camera Lucida, racialization is something like the unconscious of the essence of photography. Indeed the troping and subsequent disappearing of racial difference for “purely” epistemological purposes may well be the most “universal” gesture here—the essence, if you will, of a whole tradition’s way of knowing by signifying the other.

For Barthes, the unique quality of the photograph, its that-has-been-ness, along with the ability of the punctum to puncture the merely meaningful and disrupt the normative function of the sign, imbues the photograph with a radical semiotic instability. However Barthes does less with the instability unleashed (instantiated) by the photograph than we might hope. For example, he writes that, “since every photograph is contingent (and thereby outside of meaning) photography cannot signify (aim at generality) except by assuming a mask,”[13] He then regards the Richard Avedon portrait entitled William Casby, Born a Slave, and all-too-summarily concludes his observations with the thought that “the essence of slavery is here laid bare: the mask is the meaning, insofar as it is absolutely pure.”[14]

William Casby, Born a Slave

Richard Avedon, William Casby, Born a Slave, 1963.

Barthes inclusion and cursory treatment of the Avedon photo do more than give slavery short shrift, they make slavery appear only to make it disappear again. “Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning […] Hence the photograph whose meaning is too impressive is quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically.”[15] Ironically, to lay bare the essence of slavery, the photograph and therefore Barthes must be in “mask” mode—that is, on the side of meaning and of society, of semiotics. This “essence of slavery” is neither named nor described. Rather, its meaning conveniently dispensed with, the photograph opens the way for further (aesthetic) remarks on the inherent characteristics of the photographic medium. One suddenly suspects that the trajectory of the text—a striving to represent the essence of photography by replacing obscure projections with a lucid Real accomplished by signifying through racialized representations—is precisely a way of not talking about slavery and is, in fact, a displacement, a method of disappearing the history and with it, the logistics of perception that really produced the image of William Casby and perhaps in certain respects, all photographic images. It being understood, of course, that a political meaning of this sort would subsequently vitiate ostensibly value-neutral aesthetic inquiry, forever. But Barthes treats the Casby photograph as a studium, which allows him to proceed with the analysis of the essence of photography in his famous degree-zero prose.

Fifty pages later, at exactly the climactic moment in Camera Lucida when Barthes discovers photography’s essence, slavery comes up again:

I remember keeping for a long time a photograph I had cut out of a magazine—lost subsequently like everything too carefully put away—which showed a slave market: the slavemaster, in a hat, standing, the slaves, in loincloths, sitting. I repeat: a photograph, not a drawing or engraving; for my horror and my fascination as a child came from this: that there was a certainty that such a thing had existed: not a question of exactitude, but of reality: the historian was no longer the mediator, slavery was given without mediation, the fact was established without method.[16]

One is reminded here of Regis Debray’s statement: “A fortiori, ideology could be defined as the play of ideas in the silence of technologies.”[17] Here, the silent technologies that establish Barthes’ certitude “without method” (an ostensibly nonideological knowing that for Louis Althusser would mark the pinnacle of ideological—and hence semiotic—function) would include all of the recording machines and disciplinary technologies involved in the mediation of people by graphing their skin as image or sign, converting subjects into objects and persons into commodities that together constitute and constellate as photography. In Camera Lucida, slavery itself composes photography’s primal scene, its degree zero, but Barthes reads an (the?) image of slavery—actually, ironically, and uncannily an absent image of slavery—in purely phenomenological terms.

Whether in the semiotic or evidentiary mode, slavery appears in Camera Lucida as supplementary to the photograph. In the first instance, the Casby photo, slavery appears as an essence that is visibly communicated, but aestheticized and thus of no more interest (since Barthes meaningfully pursues the photograph as an event beyond meaning). In the second evidentiary example, an absent image of slavery appears as the cynosure of photography itself—slavery and its absence exist, as it were, principally to establish the that-has-been-ness of the photograph. Thus the disappearance of method in Barthes’ establishing for himself the facts of slavery has, in fact, the opposite function in Camera Lucida: the discursive disappearance of slavery establishes the facts of photography; that is the method. It is only via the epistemic disappearance of slavery—and of all the historical-economic vectors that made both slavery and photography possible—that Barthes’ phenomenological account of photography as merely a technical medium with a unique property is possible. One must keep the histories of racial formation and political economy outside of the frame to have evidence without method because otherwise, one might see that the evidence is the method: the historical and technical separation of subjects from their skin explicitly places racialization and photography on a continuum. To produce photography as a stand-alone platform, slavery must be at once present and disavowed. Which is to say that slavery is one of the methods by and through which photography came to be what it is, or at least what it appears to be—an autonomous platform. From this it is crystal clear that colonialism, and slavery and the institutionalization and normalization of its practices, are part of the conditions by which bodies are first liquidated of subjectivity and reduced to images and signs for others to read. These modes of alienation are part of the economic and racial prehistory that gives rise to the society of the spectacle. Social photo-graphing provides the abstract machine for technical photo-graphing; chattel slavery haunts the photographic image. To fail to address this primordial disappearing—both the alienation of the skin and the alienation of the right to one’s look, persistently emerging in Barthes text as an eternal return of the repressed—would be to embrace the essence of the dominant discourse about photography, which as it stands unconsciously recapitulates, extends, and naturalizes violent forms of corporeal inscription, racial objectification, and social death as the very media of speculation.

Time constraints force me to note only in passing that such photo-graphy disappears bodies to make subjects appear, and disappears subjects to make bodies appear. The disappearance of the subjectivity of the slave-object becomes the means by which the subjectivity of the slave-master manifests. Likewise the slave’s body appears as the means of world-making and of slave-master subjectivity through the radical and violent disappearing of the slave’s subjectivity. Materially and psychologically, the objectification of the slave is a condition of possibility for the subjectivity of the slave-master. And the disappearance of slavery is the condition of possibility for Barthes’ philosophy of photography—that is, for the essence of photography as many still understand it.

As Harriet Jacobs’ example shows, to an extreme that was all-too-common, the slave as a subject had to disappear from view in a white-supremacist scopic regime in order to retain subjectivity and even life. What is remarkable in her case is that she was able to occupy this regime in a clandestine way that allowed her to preserve and ultimately constitute her subjectivity in public discourse—albeit at a tremendous price. It would not be incorrect to assert that under this scopic regime, Jacobs’ superhuman perseverance—which allowed her to live long enough to achieve literacy, write her life story, and reappropriate both her body and her gaze—is one of the punctums in the history of photography. Her presence constitutes a wound, a prick of the Real, which the dominant discourses on the origins, meaning, and significance of photography have preferred not to detect, to simply pass over in silence, as if her life and similar lives had nothing to do with the history of images and of image-making.

Without doubt, the camera obscura from which Harriet Jacobs miraculously emerges is an iteration of a visual-political system that extends in one way or another through the history of modern racism and colonialism, a visual-political system marked by gender as well as by race. There can be no doubt that gender dynamics underpinned the formation and, indeed, the form of photography (whether black and white, or colored) in a manner that was similar to, but necessarily distinct from race. Furthermore, these social vectors—vectors that are fundamentally linked to agency and oppression vis-à-vis objectification—are inseparable from the cultural meanings and, indeed, the mysteries of the photograph. Jacobs is objectified as a black and as a woman: in addition to her enslavement, the slave-master’s lust and the slave-mistress’s jealousy were what produced the particular circumstances of her incarceration in camera. What subsequently is allowed to appear and what is disappeared in photographs (what constitutes photography’s “program,” as Flusser might say) has everything to do with the dynamics of agency and desire in this regime. The fact that this regime is contested also places the use, meaning, interpretation, significance, and epistemology of photography on an inexorably political terrain. What would it mean, really, to think of slavery as a form of photography or conversely, of photography as a form of slavery? And again, what would it mean to think of photography as a vector of feminization and commodification, both of which are inseparable from racism in the modern era? And what are the long-term epistemological and political implications of a certain knowledge of this triple objectification that recognizes that these photographic racializing and engendering structures of encoding and expropriation are the conditions of possibility for the now ineluctably historical illusion of transcendent, unmarked, objective (photographic) perspectives which, despite their anachronistic ontologies, persist in rendering truths ostensibly “without method?” Specifically, for those of us who concern ourselves with media and politics as if life depended on these (which it does), does understanding the historicity of technological formations, cameras, film stocks, distribution systems, and the myriad other apparatuses of visualization in terms of race, gender, and commodification call out contemporary media theory’s technological determinism such that to refer to “photography”—or for that matter, “computers” or “the internet”—as if they were standalone media could be dismissed outright as a kind of platform fetishism bent on the disavowal of the immanent and absolute relevance of race, gender, and political economy to any and all technological questioning?

Although we might use Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s idea of a “plantocary of images” or Hortense Spiller’s still unrivaled instantiation of “the flesh” as wedges of further inquiry, marking a starting point for reckoning the ontological being and unrepresentable experience of captured bodies always already overcoded by violent categories (and hence ideologies and moreover practices) of race and gender; my purpose in this brief intervention has only been to “stain the waters clear”—that is, to make the invisible visible in the seemingly transparent window that is the photograph, indelibly marking photography itself as a racial formation.[18] In this view Flusser’s account of the photograph as a “triple abstraction,” persuasive as it may be, remains woefully incomplete, as it is derived purely from mediatic shifts and devoid of geopolitical concreteness.[19] Indeed, the history of visuality needs to be entirely rewritten in terms that understand the intersecting roles of racialization, feminization, and commodification.

To be sure, no amount of looking—even knowledgably—at Avedon’s photo of William Casby, Born a Slave could redeem any aspect of the violent injustice and brutally unspeakable enduring of the past. Recognizing that contemporary visuality is bound up with racism and slavery—genetically, so to speak—and that so much of what is seen is actually a seeing through slavery does not amount to reparations. However the abiding thought that modern scopic (and I would also argue, discursive) regimes are inexorably entangled in lived racism, past and present, and that there is no photographic image, and possibly no post-photographic thought, that is untouched by racism shifts the terrain for the understanding and use of images and archives. May it also enable visions and practices that will help to one day make racism a “that has been” that is no more.

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  1. Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006). [Return to text]
  2. Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006) 237. [Return to text]
  3. Goldsby 238. [Return to text]
  4. Stephen Heath, “Questions of Cinema,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia U P, 1986). [Return to text]
  5. Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (New York: New Press, 1988). [Return to text]
  6. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press,1987). [Return to text]
  7. See Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000) and Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003). [Return to text]
  8. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) 10. [Return to text]
  9. Barthes 11. [Return to text]
  10. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2008) 113. [Return to text]
  11. Barthes 81. [Return to text]
  12. See Vicente Rafael, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History (Durham: Duke UP, 2000); Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, trans. Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986); Jane Gaines, Contested Culture: the Image, the Voice and the Law (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991). [Return to text]
  13. Barthes 34. [Return to text]
  14. Richard Avedon, William Casby, Born a Slave, Barthes 35. [Return to text]
  15. Barthes 36. [Return to text]
  16. Barthes 80; italics in the original. [Return to text]
  17. Regis Debray, Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms (London: Verso, 1996) 31. [Return to text]
  18. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Captive Bodies: Postcolonial Subjectivity in Cinema (Albany: State U of New York P, 1999); Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987). [Return to text]
  19. Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Anthony Matthews (London: Reaktion, 2000). [Return to text]