Looking Forward and Looking Back: Rashid Johnson and Frederick Douglass on Photography

Samuel J Miller, Frederick Douglass, 1847/52, Daguerreotype, 14 x 10.6 cm, Art Institute of Chicago

Samuel J Miller, Frederick Douglass, 1847/52, Daguerreotype, 14 x 10.6 cm, Art Institute of Chicago

This talk 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.

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has published five books on the history and theory of photography and gender and race in U.S. visual culture.  Her most recent book, At the Edge of Sight:  Photography and the Unseen (Duke 2013), received the 2014 Lawrence W. Levine Award for best book in American cultural history from the Organization of American Historians and the 2014 Jean Goldman Book Prize from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Her new book, Photography and the Optical Unconscious, co-edited with Sharon Sliwinski, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

Presented with Sydney Ideas and the Power Institute:


Photo Profusion and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious in the Weimar Era.

Walter Benjamin about 1925 ©  Pictorial Press Ltd  / Alamy Stock Photo.

Walter Benjamin about 1925 © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

Andrés Mario Zervigón is Associate Professor of the History of Photography at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He is author of John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and coeditor with Tanya Sheehan of Photography and Its Origins (Routledge, 2014). His current book projects include Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung -- The Worker's Illustrated Magazine, 1921-1938: A History of Germany's Other Avant-Garde, for which he received a CASVA Senior Fellowship (2013-14); Photography and Germany, for the Reaktion Books Exposures series; and Photography and Doubt, which he is co-editing with Sabine Kriebel (Routledge, 2016).


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.

I argue in this paper that different approaches to presence in Argentinian photography offer a means of prizing open familiar and somewhat limited photographic dualisms of presence and absence to think about photography’s relationships to presence and history in new ways. The use of personal photographs in the public realm is central to the conceptions of photographic presence to be examined, from the public protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to photographs used in formal processes of justice and the artistic work of contemporary practitioners. The apparent contradictions in some of these photography practices will also be addressed, as they simultaneously critique and recuperate formerly contested myths of photographic truth and presence.

Professor Melissa Miles is based in the Art History and Theory Program at MADA, Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. Her books include The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light (2008, 2010), The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography (2015), and The Culture of Photography in Public Space (2015, co-edited with Anne Marsh and Daniel Palmer). Melissa’s journal articles on photography’s history and theory have been published in Journal of Visual Culture, History of Photography, Fashion Theory, Photographies, Photography and Culture, Law, Culture and the Humanities and Word and Image, amongst others. She is the recipient of numerous awards and competitive grants, including a four year Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for the project ‘Photography and Its Publics’, which examines photography’s constitutive role in the public realm. Current research projects also include an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project, with Prof Robin Gerster, on Australian-Japanese photographic relations.