Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness

Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness

by Nicole R. Fleetwood

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Troubling Vision addresses American culture’s fixation on black visibility, exploring how blackness is persistently seen as a problem in public culture and even in black scholarship that challenges racist discourse. Through trenchant analysis, Nicole R. Fleetwood reorients the problem of black visibility by turning attention to what it means to see blackness and to the performative codes that reinforce, resignify, and disrupt its meaning. Working across visual theory and performance studies, Fleetwood asks, How is the black body visualized as both familiar and disruptive? How might we investigate the black body as a troubling presence to the scopic regimes that define it as such? How is value assessed based on visible blackness?

Fleetwood documents multiple forms of engagement with the visual, even as she meticulously underscores how the terms of engagement change in various performative contexts. Examining a range of practices from the documentary photography of Charles “Teenie” Harris to the “excess flesh” performances of black female artists and pop stars to the media art of Fatimah Tuggar to the iconicity of Michael Jackson, Fleetwood reveals and reconfigures the mechanics, codes, and metaphors of blackness in visual culture.

Troubling Vision is a path-breaking book that examines the problem of seeing blackness—the simultaneous hyper-visibility and invisibility of African Americans—in US visual culture in the last half century. Weaving together critical modes and methodologies from performance studies, art history, critical race studies, visual culture analysis, and gender theory, Fleetwood expands Du Bois’s idea of double vision into a broad questioning of whether ‘representation itself will resolve the problem of the black body in the field of vision.’ With skilled attention to historical contexts, documentary practices, and media forms, she takes up the works of a broad variety of cultural producers, from photographers and playwrights to musicians and visual artists and examines black spectatorship as well as black spectacle. In chapters on the trope of ‘non-iconicity’ in the photographs of Charles (Teenie) Harris, the ‘visible seams’ in the digital images of the artist Fatimah Tuggar, and a coda on the un-dead Michael Jackson, Fleetwood's close analyses soar. Troubling Vision is a beautifully written, original, and important addition to the field of American Studies.”—Announcement of the American Studies Association for the 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226253039
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/30/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nicole R. Fleetwood is assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers University and an art consultant who has worked with numerous museums and art institutions.

Read an Excerpt

Troubling Vision

Performance, Visuality, and Blackness

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-25303-9

Chapter One

"One Shot": Charles "Teenie" Harris and the Photographic Practice of Non-Iconicity

The camera loves the black subject whose struggles for equality represent the possibilities of American democracy. Twentieth-century American visual archives abound with iconic images of larger-than-life and fixed black subjects in duress and achieving remarkable feats. Documentary photography of black freedom movements, especially the period understood as the civil rights era, holds a special place in how blacks become visually recognized in the historical record. These images serve as one of the primary modes in which the fight for civil rights and equality gets understood and memorialized in dominant discourse and public culture. While civil rights photography provides an invaluable resource of documenting the era, many of the images have become incorporated into the national imaginary to manage the history of racial subjugation. As photographic icons, these images circulate in dominant public culture as representative of a grand narrative of overcoming that solidifies American exceptionalism.

The term icon in public culture is rich with meaning as image, representation, symbol, someone or something famous—with larger-than-life status, a religious object. Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce defines the icon within semiotics as a "diagrammatic sign" that "exhibits a similarity or analogy to the subject of discourse." Contemporary cultural theorists, borrowing from Peirce, use the term more broadly as "an image (or person) that refers to something beyond its individual components, something (or someone) that acquires symbolic significance. Icons are often perceived to represent universal concepts, emotions, and meanings." In their study of iconic photography and public culture, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites conceptualize the photographic icon, produced by photojournalism, as a form of public art that generates a civic performance: "the iconic photograph is an aesthetically familiar form of civic performance coordinating an array of semiotic transcriptions that project an emotional scenario to manage a basic contradiction or recurrent crisis." Hariman and Lucaites explain that the crucial function of the photographic icon is to call forth a notion of the public and collective affect in the nation-state. The icon, as I use it, borrows from each of these definitions. The icon, here, is an analogic or relational sign that produces affective responses in audiences by "sticking" the thing or person signified to normative codes, meaning, and values, what Hariman and Lucaites refer to as the "iconic affect" of certain notable images. By focusing on one photographer's practice of rendering black subjects in non-iconic modes—favoring localized, everyday scenes and moments of the mundane and ephemera—I consider alternative modes of black visual engagement, not framed by iconicity and spectacular blackness that dominate visual culture.

The mighty weight and powerful narrative embedded in the photographic icon of the civil rights era is reflected in one of the most reproduced images of the twentieth century, that of Rosa Parks sitting on the front of a bus as a white male passenger glares behind her. The bespectacled Parks wears a modest dress, a winter coat, and a hat. Parks's body is contained next to the bus's frame; she sits with hands crossed and looks intently out the window. She is the embodiment of what Evelyn Higginbotham calls "the politics of respectability." One row behind her sits a white man whose body is positioned to take up more space. The expression on his face might be read as a grimace, a slight grin, or perhaps even irony. Attention to the production and reception of this photograph reveals the "iconic affect" of the genre of civil rights photography. In this case, the singular image has two operations: it stands in for historical narrative, and through its circulation, the historical narrative of which it is the symbol becomes reduced to that of a decontextualized past.

The untitled photograph of Parks is meant to suggest the day that she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. It is as if that precise moment had been captured by an astute observer who understood the historical significance of her action at the moment of its unfolding. An image that is known to have been staged, the photograph of Rosa Parks on the bus still produces visceral emotions and many iterations five decades later. The white man in the image who, in the context of the historical moment cited, might be read as a racist southerner, is Nicholas C. Chriss, a journalist who covered the civil rights movement for the United Press International (UPI). The photo shoot was organized by Look magazine, and the image was taken by an UPI photographer in December 1956, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled Montgomery's Jim Crow bus policy unconstitutional and precisely a year after Parks's arrest for violating the city's back of the bus policy. For decades Chriss remained unidentified in most reproductions of and references to the image. In a New York Times article written after Rosa Parks died in 2005, journalist Peter Applebome considers the significance of the staging of the image. Applebome notes that Chriss rarely commented on his role in the image; however, in a 1986 article Chriss wrote:

Each anniversary of that day, this photograph is brought out of musty files and used in various publications around the world. But to this day no one has ever made clear that it was a reporter, I, covering this event and sitting behind Mrs. Parks, not some sullen white segregationist! It was a great scoop for me, but Mrs. Parks had little to say. She seemed to want to savor the event alone.

Fred Gray, the civil rights lawyer who represented Parks in the Montgomery bus case, also commented on the image's historical significance: "What it says is true ... that 381 days of walking had accomplished something historic so that instead of her getting up to give a white man her seat, instead the white man was sitting behind her on the bus. It was staged, but I don't think it inaccurately represented anything." For Gray, the staging of the event and the fact that the photographic subjects understood the weight of the image as it was taken do not lessen the importance of its representational impact. Gray argues that the image still stands for the "truth" of racial segregation and black disenfranchisement.

Parks's biographer, Douglas Brinkley, provides additional context for understanding the production and reception of the image. According to Brinkley, photo shoots had been organized for December 1, 1956, to mark the end of Montgomery's segregated bus system. earlier that day several black male civil rights leaders had been photographed sitting in front of buses, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. Parks had not been invited to be a part of these larger photo shoots. Parks recalled to Brinkley that later that morning a reporter and two photographers from Look knocked on her door and asked her "to come ride a bus so they could document the historic event." Brinkley states that Parks expressed apprehension about being photographed in such a manner but finally agreed to it. According to this recounting, the photographer encouraged her to gaze as she did on the day of her arrest a year earlier. Parks, considering the picture's impact, notes: "Children from around the world send me that picture to sign.... It's become my symbol shot, my historical honor badge."

Parks emphasizes the power of that photographic shoot in framing her as a black American icon. Her statement and the popular response to the image spell out the significance of the photographic icon as historical evidence and the focus placed on individual acts and achievements within grand historical narratives. Attempts to demythologize these iconic photographs do not challenge the significance of the activism and protest represented (staged or not). Instead, context provides a more complex understanding of the strategies involved and deliberate actions taken to actualize black freedom struggles. They are part of what we might call the theater of social protest instead of "raw" and authentic documentation of social injustice.

The photograph of Rosa Parks on the bus is central in shaping a mainstream public's understanding of recent history and social change in the United States. It is literally and figuratively a symbol of an era, no more evidenced than its citation in contemporary public discourse and popular culture. The photograph is the basis of an Apple computer advertisement in which the image is appropriated and tagged with the slogan "Think Different," to suggest individualism, choice, and consumption. And the commercialization of Parks's image has only intensified in the years since her death, leading to multiple lawsuits and struggles to control and license her image. This form of appropriation is what Leigh Raiford calls "hypericonization in which viewers [are] presented with the restaging of representations." Hypericonization suggests a level of familiarity with the icon that goes beyond its decontextualization. With the hypericon meaning has been solidified in such a way that the icon has limitless mobility. It can be transplanted to new arenas that both displace its historicity and abstract certain values, feelings, or ideas associated with its historical context to new audiences and settings. Its specificity is now an abstraction that can circulate throughout public culture, carrying both the weight of historical narrative and a decontextualized vague strain of its pastness.

This chapter analyzes the photographic practice and work of Charles "Teenie" Harris. Harris's lens provides an alternative visual index of black lived experience of the twentieth century, one that does not rely on the familiar device of photographic iconicity. Harris focused on the specificity of black life in Pittsburgh and his work circulated primarily among a black audience who also served as the subject of his lens. This is an important departure from representative documentary photography of the era that centered white spectatorship and appealed to white sympathies for civil rights reform in the United States. Harris's photographic practice overlapped with the careers of many more well-known black photographers whose work became associated with documenting racial inequality and black freedom struggles, most notably the civil rights era—a period where many of the most iconic images of black American life and struggle circulated widely in print and television media.

What sets Harris's work apart from the more widely acclaimed photography of the era is the absence of the stilled icon in his pictures. Harris captured a myriad of small acts. His photography provides an opportunity to consider the impact that iconicity and blackness-as-spectacle have had on solidifying dominant visual signs and narratives of black twentieth-century experience. Spectacular blackness emerges as a concept to address the saturation of images of black bodies while also acknowledging the continual political, economic, and social disenfranchisement of millions of blacks both in the United States and internationally. Iconic blackness as larger-than-life image (Rosa Parks, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr., to name just a few) and spectacular blackness—from criminal deviance to excessive bodily enactments— are the dominant visual modes for representing black subjects and black lived experience, in particular throughout the twentieth century. In Harris's work, the icon is replaced by a repetitive representational strategy of documenting fleeting, seemingly ordinary moments and happenings in the lives of black Pittsburghers. While his practice differs from the dominant canon of documentary photography, Harris was part of a photographic tradition in black communities of documenting local everyday happenings. These neighborhood photographers were known as "picture-taking men" and were often local celebrities in their communities.

Through Harris's practice, what comes into question is the authority of the iconic image to enlarge—literally make larger than life—certain figures in dominant understanding of American and black American history, while obscuring other representations of black twentieth-century life. Harris's archive provides an important visual narrative of local community practices and experience in black American life. Harris's archive displaces spectacular and iconic blackness with images of localized, temporal everyday that are unfamiliar to canonical history of black American experience. Harris's practice and work map an alternative path of black visuality from that instantiated in photographs like the classic and intensely circulated image of Parks. In building this other path, I begin by considering iconicity through documentary photography in order to situate Harris and his work in a historical context of image, practice, and audience. It is only against this background that we can begin to appreciate the specificity of Harris's photographic practice and the recent work of Carnegie Museum of Art that have built up around it in Pittsburgh. Central to this argument is the circulation of his photographs during his time as a working photographer locally and also posthumously in the realm of the digital archive through the efforts of Carnegie Museum of Art. The museum's Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project provides a rich context to analyze the after-life of the practice and the present and evolving life of his archive.

Harris, born in 1908, spent the 1930s through the late 1970s documenting Pittsburgh's black communities while working as a photojournalist for one of the largest black newspapers of the twentieth century, the Pittsburgh Courier, and running his own photo studio in the Hill District. For most of the century, the neighborhood was a vibrant, class-stratified community that was a hub of local black entrepreneurship and a cultural center. While the District was primarily black, in the early decades of the century it had a high population of immigrants and ethnic whites and was one of the gateway neighborhoods for newcomers to Pittsburgh. Working-class blacks lived in the lower Hill and middle-class blacks lived in the middle and upper Hill. Harris's family, well known in the neighborhood, at one time owned the Masio Hotel, where black celebrities and leaders stayed. His brother "Woogie" was a local legend, having operated one of the most successful numbers-running networks in the region, for which Harris himself was a one-time runner. Harris's relationship to the neighborhood afforded him a level of familiarity and access to residents, ceremonies, regional politics, and local establishments, especially in his work as a photographer-for-hire for his neighbors, documenting birthday parties, weddings, and events in the city.

Over the course of his career, Harris amassed nearly 80,000 negatives of primarily local black Pittsburghers, in large part because he reportedly never destroyed a negative. According to historian Larry Glasco, Harris is believed to have built "the largest single body of photographic visual evidence and documentation of any black community in the United States, and probably the world." Historians and scholars of photography have described Harris's significance to black American visual culture and American photographic history in terms of the quantity of photographs that he took over his long life span. Photographic historian Deborah Willis describes Harris's "major contribution to photography [as] his extensive documentation of black life in Pittsburgh from the post-Depression period through the post-civil rights era." His photographs range from blacks' participation in World War II, to coverage of the local civil rights struggles, to political and civic happenings, to black entertainment culture, to many numerous and seemingly random images of unidentified individuals in various private and public settings. Among his collection are thousands of images of working black men and women posing for his camera while performing routine tasks. Harris offered detailed attention to a mid-size, mid-Atlantic city, unlike many photographic projects of the century that focused on New York, Chicago, and the rural South. Glasco argues that Harris's legacy offers a visual narrative of urban black life as compelling as the more well-known documentation of Harlem during the same era: "In the long run, his photographs may cause Pittsburgh's Hill District to join New York City's Harlem in forming our view of urban Black life from the 1930s to the 1960s."


Excerpted from Troubling Vision by NICOLE R. FLEETWOOD Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago 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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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


ONE / “One Shot”: Charles “Teenie” Harris and the Photographic Practice of Non-Iconicity
TWO / Her Own Spook: Colorism, Vision, and the Dark Female Body
THREE / Excess Flesh: Black Women Performing Hypervisibility
FOUR / “I am King”: Hip-Hop Culture, Fashion Advertising, and the Black Male Body
FIVE / Visible Seams: The Media Art of Fatimah Tuggar
CODA / The Icon Is Dead: Mourning Michael Jackson


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