THE SYMPOSIUM WAS A HUGE SUCCESS AND WE ARE PLEASED TO MAKE AVAILABLE PODCASTS OF THE TALKS VIA SOUNDCLOUD.
KEYNOTE AND PLENARY ADDRESSES
Professor Shawn Michelle Smith. Looking Forward and Looking Back: Rashid Johnson and Frederick Douglass on Photography
Professor Smith considers Frederick Douglass’s propositions about the social power of photography. Looking back at Douglass’s lecture “Pictures and Progress” through the lens of contemporary artist Rashid Johnson’s homage to the nineteenth-century orator, the talk examines Douglass’s surprising celebration of photography as an objectifying medium. Douglass saw the persistence of photographs as both a conserving and a conservative force, and Johnson’s self-portrait after Douglass testifies to that doubled dynamic. But Douglass also found progressive power in the technology’s capacity to alienate the self, an unexpected position for the formerly enslaved. The talk explores Douglass’s complicated embrace of photography as a medium of objectification as well as progress, as a link to the past as well as the future.
Professor Andrés Mario Zervigón. Photo Profusion and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious in the Weimar Era
The last 30 years have seen a great deal of enlightening scholarship on Benjamin's optical unconscious. Yet much of this work expands well beyond photography, the actual subject of Benjamin’s formulation. This talk places the medium and its historically specific conditions at the center of renewed inquiry into this topic. It focuses on the multi-faceted concern around 1931 that photography had broken its modernist and populist promise to reveal unseen worlds for the good, teach rational modes of perception and operate as a straightforward means of enlightenment. Instead, photographic images in these years seemed fundamentally flawed by their great profusion, the commercial and political conditions that generated this flood, and the very contingency of any one image. The talk proposes that Benjamin acknowledged these shortcomings and responded by assigning the medium’s revelatory agency to the subjective realm of the unconscious where contingency played the very most important role in perception.
Professor Melissa Miles. Photography, Presence and History: Argentina’s Disappeared
This paper focuses on the connections between presence and photography in contemporary Argentina, and considers their broader implications for photography theory and historiography. Photography has been particularly important during and after Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983) as a means of recovering repressed histories and asserting the presence of the thousands of ‘disappeared’ who were abducted and murdered by the military regime. Photographic presence is a compelling issue in this context as the military not only made people disappear, it also eliminated evidence of the disappearance. Detention centres were kept out of public view, and authorities either destroyed or were careful not to produce evidence that could help families locate their loved one or understand their fate.