Seeing Things

image by imp kerr

A review of At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen by Shawn Michelle Smith

“The age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions, in short, of impatiences, of everything which denies ripening” —Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

The photograph grips us; this is what Barthes has famously called the punctum, the affective prick that lingers, that is in the image but then, not in the image at all—the detail that calls to the spectator, the reality of time passing and having gone past, the resonances of death in the image. In At the Edge of Sight, Shawn Michelle Smith reads the punctum as a stab of desire but also of agitation, identification, a cultural anxiety inseparable from the racial and sexual politics of the moment. This is what Barthes missed; his own obfuscations, his subsuming of the other.

The photograph is proof, evidence. And yet, the photograph does not speak for itself. The photograph both records and crops, “both expand[s] and narrow[s] a visual field.” What lies outside of the frame, on the edges, behind the camera? The photograph offers no proof that does not need to be corroborated by testimony. Once, audiences were eager to be fooled by optical illusions—a fairy in a child’s hand, a dead loved one hovering in the frame. Now, in an age of ubiquitous photoshopping, we are right to be suspicious and yet we are still gripped. This is reality, captured.

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? What are the “shadows that hover on the brink of invisibility,” the “nearly indiscernible peripheral forms that haunt our vision”? Smith calls on the spectator to look at a photograph, one that wounds us or doesn’t, and work to unpack the studium, to locate the photographer and ourselves as participants in the making of the image, of what we see and what we don’t see.

Smith focuses on the beginning of the development of photography as a professional skill at the end of the 19th century, before the explosion of amateurism put a Kodak in the hands of every family and gave rise to the snapshot. Certainly before what Andrew Hoskins has referred to as the “post-scarcity era” of digital media, the glut of images flooding the Internet. She evokes the excitement in the early years of the first hazy “hard to see” plate produced in 1826 by Joseph Niépce, which underscores for Smith “at the very heart of photography, both an intense desire, and a failure, to see.”

At the onset, the photograph quickly became an instrument of eugenics—the naked, racialized body posed against a grid of legibility as pioneered by anthropologists and eugenicists such as Francis Galton, who innovated composite portraiture as a way of defining racial “types.” Against this categorical urge, Smith locates a queerly subversive desire in the contemporaneous pictorialist portraits of F. Holland Day from the late 19th century. The photographs are purposefully hazy, a soft-focus intended to mimic painting and lend a high-art credence to the new technology -- an aesthetic that fell quickly out of favor. Day’s photographs feature young white men posed as Orpheus and Saint Sebastian. Day plays with racialized erotics with platinum prints of Black men posed as African kings, the artist smoking in the foreground with a nude Black model standing behind him. Smith points out, “The hazy, atmospheric aesthetics and theatrical performances of pictorialism might be understood to transform the body from legible scientific sign into evocative symbolic sign.” This is the body as evidence of desire, rather than pathology.

Smith further examines the collotype prints of Eadward Muybridge, the composite movement images that proved that all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground in a gallop and envisaged the white body posited against the grid of legibility—Ivy League athletes boxing, fit young images of hygienic whiteness. Smith engages whiteness in this archive as a kind of movement itself: “motion is not ‘captured’ in Muybridge’s photographs; it is only inferred through the perception of difference, or perhaps différance. It is precisely that which is not seen in the images themselves. The intended referent is deferred, remaining invisible in the dark space between photographs.” Smith refers to the racial and sexual shadow archive of Muybridge’s bodies in motion. First, are the present but undefined homoerotics of the image, and then, the absences; the black pugilist located alone in the frame, punching at nothing. Smith also located the unnamed class dynamics of the images; while Muybridge frequently used monied University of Pennsylvania students for his male studies, he failed to find appropriately classed female models. Instead, he used artists’ models -- devoid, in his imagining, of the grace and poise of the absent upper-class woman -- as a kind of surrogate. Smith places these photographs, as scientific studies that define the field of movement without capturing movement at all, within a broader archive of race and desire. She asks of the archive what bodies are made legible, and what bodies can only be inferred between the frames?


At the Edge of Sight is divided by visual and creative codas; I’m not sure if Smith’s poetics bolster her argument, but 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. I understand her need, to “liberate” Muybridge’s model from “this perpetual dousing and drenching” by removing her from the scene, by giving her a voice that narrates the conditions of her making into the photographic object. I understand her desire to blow up the missed details of a snapshot, to insert a family portrait into this history, that already belongs there, because photography is a medium of access, and her grandfather worked on the trains. He was there; note his stance, note the confident lean and the cuffed pant leg.

Smith reads Barthes desire for madness, ill-defined and perhaps misnamed by both but nevertheless recognizable through the aspirational practice of viewing; the photograph acts as a kind of time travel, “ghostly traces become real and present. They touch and haunt the viewer.”

What is the punctum without the studium, without the culturally informed setting of the scene, without historical knowledge? As Smith informs us, the maiden aunt in Van Der Zee’s 1926 Family Portrait isn’t wearing a necklace of braided gold at all as Barthes recalls. In fact, it is Barthes’s maiden aunt’s necklace that subsumes the other, pearl necklace in his memory. It is Barthes's colonial, patronizing racism that, in Camera Lucida, reads the visual respectability of these gathered siblings as an attempt “to assume the White Man’s attributes (an effort touching by reason of its naïveté)” and leads him to describe the aunt as a “‘solacing Mammy’.” Smith further reads Barthes’s own reproductive anxieties, as himself a kind of maiden aunt in the familial structure, as the gay bachelor who never left his mother’s home.

Smith locates a racial as well as a critical nostalgia, noting that “nostalgia works both to evade and expose” in Andrew Russell’s photographs of the building of the American railroads as well as in Chansonetta Stanley Emmon’s photographs of yeoman farmers in Maine and sharecroppers in the Carolinas (the pastoral v. the plantation). The photograph captures that which moves too fast to see; the view from a moving train, the history of a dying way of life.

Amongst these geographies of absence and concealment, I am struck in particular by one portrait Smith included. It is unusual in this archive, uniquely spontaneous, taken by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons with a roll-film camera in 1926, late in her career. The photograph is of a Black woman standing in a field, hands resting behind her back (a more casual, defiant riff on James Van Der Zee’s maiden aunt, arms folded back primly). She stands next to a wooden barrel, having been interrupted in the act of harvesting a crop that Smith identifies as spinach. She wears bulky layers—stockings, a dress, what looks like an apron, a sweater with a hole torn in the sleeve, forearm exposed. Her hair is wrapped in a kerchief and over it, a hat that is oddly reminiscent of a pith helmet. Her eyes are shadowed by the rim of the hat, her gaze is obscured but her mouth is open, she is caught in the act of speech. The photograph is whimsically titled for presentation, by the artist, No Maam! I Don’t Want My Picture Taken. Within Emmon’s critical pastoral, protesting the injustices of sharecropping, is nevertheless the power differential between these two women, the white photographer who does not require the consent of her Black subject, and the unwilling subject herself. Ariella Azoulay describes a civil contract of photography, a “mutual recognition” between photographer and photographed, “in which citizenship is claimed and authorized through participation in a photographic encounter, rather than by the dictates of the state.” What is the mutual recognition here, between Emmons and the unnamed sharecropper, in this nonconsensual space between the photographed and the photographer?

As Smith argues, building on Azoulay’s critique of Barthes, the “this has been” and the something that “was there” of historical photography conceals the “persons who haven’t stopped being ‘there.’” The pastness of photography allows us to constrain the politics of the photograph, to be hit in the gut by a photograph of Black sharecroppers and call our reaction unnameable, instead of placing this photograph in a history of U.S. racism that engenders the prison system today, instead of locating this gut feeling within a framework of racial affect that belies the universality of Barthes punctum. This is the punctum: this man was a slave and his great grandchildren continue to labor in a racist visual and political economy that congealed in the 19th century. “The assumption is that the photographs show or perform something that is already over and done, foreclosing the option of watching photographs as a space of political relations.” What happens when we watch instead for the movement between the frames, for the photographer’s reflection, for the histories that the photograph evidences but can never fully reveal? This is Smith’s corrective; the punctum is never innocent, the scrutiny that Barthes disavows is deeply important. Look harder, in the spaces that look empty, for the presences at the edge of sight.


There is a temporal leap in the final chapter “Afterimages: Abu Ghraib” in which Smith returns to the 2004 photos from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, documenting torture and other human rights abuses perpetrated by U.S. military police, a scandal centered around Pfc. Lynndie England. In contrast to the “damsel in distress” image of POW Jessica Lynch, who was deployed via the “historical logics of the white woman in distress,” England was presented precisely as Lynch’s invert, the sexually deviant white woman who acts as an villainous perpetrator.

Lynch, as passive feminine symbol as well as heroic American soldier, represented the rescue and reproduction of the nation with her ascribed white morality, justifying violence by white men, as protection both for her pureness, and the nation’s. This is the same symbolic logic of the threatened white woman always-already vulnerable to rape by dark men that so often justified acts of lynching in the U.S., primarily between the late 19th and the mid 20th century. As Smith points out, the lynch mob also served the purpose of policing miscegeny, of “schooling white women in the unspoken but visibly manifest dangers they might incur in loving black men.” Smith describes the salience of good white woman/bad white woman rhetoric in lynching narratives, reappearing in the mirrored narratives of Lynch and England. She builds on Sontag’s argument in “Regarding the Torture of Others” that locates this same historical connection, a past-that-is-not-past of racial violence.

England, the sneering lady torturer, brings to the forefront a shadowy figure in the national archive, as Smith argues: “As the international icon of the American torturer, England’s image ruptured U.S. narratives of liberation by showing how representations of gender and race have served American practices of torture and terror, past and present, at home and abroad. As afterimages, the photographs of England revealed a cultural blind spot long repressed and willfully unseen.”

Her work in placing the missing white woman in the lynch mob recalls the Erased Lynching series by Ken Gonzales-Day, which removes the victim from lynching photographs in order to “redirect the viewers attention away from the lifeless body of the lynch victim and towards the mechanisms of lynching and lynching photography, to allow viewers to see the crowd, the mechanisms of the spectacle, the role of the photographer, and even the impact of flash photography, and their influence on our understanding of this dismal past.” Further, Smith’s writing on the subject is usefully read alongside Jasbir Puar’s “Abu Ghraib: Arguing Against Exceptionalism” (2004) and Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib” (2006), which present a more in depth critique of the visual politics of sexualized torture.
And yet, thinking of the Abu Ghraib photographs as afterimages, I wonder how long images live—or more accurately, how long they hit us in the gut—in this age of data abundance, of flooded archives. Ten years later, I wonder, did we rely too heavily on the shocking, ruptural nature of the Abu Ghraib photographs to burn them into a lasting national visual repertoire? Smith ends with a warning: “There is too much to see…In making so much visible, photography further obscures what is not visible, encouraging viewers to focus on what is in the frame, to the exclusion of what is not.” The Abu Ghraib photos are buried in this stunning lack of visual paucity.

The lynching photograph, laboriously printed in a studio and sold as souvenir postcard, offers a horrific albeit circumscribed archive, a relatively small number of photographs preserved to document a violent past. And again, these black and white photographs relegate to history a past which is not past, in a present marked by the deaths of Anthony Hill, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, and Renisha McBride (a very few names, among many). As Nicholas Mirzoeff has written, crucially, the lynching postcard was a public commodity, a product made for consumption. In contrast, the torture photograph was meant to be more or less private, shot digitally and shared within a small social network. While the photographs can be understood to have been leaked, and to have gone viral, Smith does not point out what Mirzoeff stresses: The Abu Ghraib photographs are an incomplete archive, an archive curated by the Pentagon that purposefully focuses on “enforced sodomy” while withholding images depicting assaults on women and children, despite the circulation of written testimonies to this extent. This limited archive reiterates an Other that is sexually deviant, that is still the body of a defeated enemy combatant—Lynndie England sickened us, but with a thrill.

After the Abu Ghraib photos were released, a meme known as “doing a Lynndie” briefly made its way around the web. Participants stuck a cigarette or something cigarette-like in their mouth and smirked, giving a thumbs up and pointing to something, anything really. People “lynndied” at passed-out friends at parties, fat people, cats—anything vaguely embarrassing or humorous replaced what in the original photograph was a line of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners, being forced to masturbate in the course of ritual humiliation and torture. Perhaps this meme, in its spectacular bad taste, offers another episode of unseeing, of substitution, a necessary supplement to the original (incomplete) set of photographs. Humor replaces horror, and then vanishes to the back pages of a web search. The partial, modified nature of this expanded Abu Ghraib archive points to a larger shadow archive of the unseen; the torture which was documented but remains unseeable, the torture that has been seen and willfully forgotten, the torture that is not documented, the black zones, the everyday injustices not rendered into proof, but also, not constrained to the past-ness of the photography. This has been, and this continues to be.