Making Harlem visible: race, photography and the American city, 1915-1955

Ings, Richard (2004) Making Harlem visible: race, photography and the American city, 1915-1955. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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In his philosophical treatise on photography, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography, Patrick Maynard makes a detailed and convincing case that photography, like other technologies, has been developed to 'amplify our powers to do things' - in this case to imagine. Photography is, fundamentally, an 'imagining technology' and photographs - 'depictive pictures' - gain their extraordinary vividness from the efficiency of this technology:

Given that we have, in the first place, to look at their marked surfaces in order to be incited and guided to some imagining seeing, pictures of things convert that very looking into an object of imagining. We imagine the represented situation, and also imagine of that looking that gives us access to it that it - our own perceptual activity - is seeing what is depicted. (1997: 107)

Photographs are to be used in this thesis as part of an investigation, already proceeding in literary analysis, into representations of racialised space and spatial contest within black life, specifically in Harlem in the first half of the twentieth century.

John Roberts, another writer on photography, provides a critical starting point for this enterprise in his book on 'realism, photography and the everyday', The Art of Interruption, in which he applies Henri Lefebvre's theory of a 'critical practice of space' to photography. Roberts examines the part that this technology plays in revealing 'the violence inherent in the production of the abstract space of the market' through its representations of places and spaces. Roberts' belief is that to 'open up the social landscape of the city to representation ... is to see the permanent or transitory result of the complex and ongoing struggle over the legal and symbolic ownership of place' (1998: 194).

'Space,' writes Michel Foucault, 'is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power' (1994: 361). The practice of everyday life and the expression of dominance and resistance are expressed spatially at all levels, from the cityscape to the space created by the body. Such 'lived' spaces can be read. They can, as African American polemicist bell hooks remarks, 'tell stories and unfold histories' (1990: 152).

Hailed once as the capital of the Negro world and just as swiftly transformed into the 'dark ghetto', Harlem is the paradigm of the black city within a city, placed inside the grid of the American metropolis but set at a distance by de facto, if not de jure segregation. Harlem's invisibility to the wider, whiter world is both symbolic and actual. When, in November 2000, I attended a celebratory reading of the work of the Harlem Renaissance writers, held at the Apollo Theater, perhaps the world's most famous black venue, the Parks Commissioner was due to open proceedings. Arriving late, he made his speech, in which he admitted that this was, after many years in post, his first visit to the Apollo. Venturing north of his main patch - Central Park - was clearly still an adventure, as it had been for the white bohemians and slummers of the 19205, heading off for jazz parties and wild times.

In introducing an exhibition of Austin Hansen's photographs of Harlem in 1989 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the photo historian Rodger C. Birt acknowledged this invisibility:

Harlem is as much a symbol as it is a real place. Harlem is uptown and its opposite, downtown, begins at 110th Street, where the park ends. Uptown is black. Downtown is white. Uptown is hip. Downtown is white. Uptown is poor. Downtown is white. Uptown is emotion. Downtown is white. These, and a myriad of other "definitions," ... have served to mark off Harlem from the rest of New York and, in effect, have created out of the reality a kind of terra incognita. (in Hansen, 1989: unpaginated)

The binary of black and white, split here by the colour line of 110th Street, runs through much of the writing and thinking about Harlem. What makes Birt's statement particularly interesting is not its reiteration of cultural stereotypes, powerful though they might be, but its unexpressed assumption that the 'white' section of New York is entirely knowable, a territory that - unlike Harlem - can easily be mapped.

Birt's suggestion is that photography can provide a map – a cultural guide to Harlem as it is, and was. While I do not accept that photographs are transparencies, or windows on the world, I will be pursuing and exploring the thought in this thesis that, in depicting 'black space' - that is, public and private space as it is and has been lived (and thus inscribed) by African Americans - photographers, both white and black, make Harlem visible.

I suggest that photographs themselves can, indeed have to be used as tools for imagining and telling stories. These stories are enacted in space, both the actual space that is recorded chemically or digitally on photographic paper and the virtual space that the photograph, as a (re)presentation of that space, frames and yet opens up to the mind and the senses of the reader. In the play between perception and imagination, between the fixed, indexical imprint and the world that the photograph hints at in its fragmentary condition, we can find a way into Harlem's complexities and ambiguities.

Before exploring these ideas through a critical analysis of selected photographs, the Introduction will provide an outline of the historical and theoretic context. Following an account of the development of photographic culture in Harlem from 1915 to 1955, I examine how the black photographic archive is currently shaped and presented, partly in relationship to the production of photographs by white photographers in Harlem during the same period. Finally, I explain my approach to reading photographs and the space they (re)present, and the way in which I have selected and organised the photographs to make my case.

The main body of this study then follows. This is divided into six chapters, each using photographic comparisons and analysis to map the struggle for legal and symbolic ownership of space. Chapter One looks at Harlem as a distinctive landscape, the paradigmatic black city produced by white power and black resistance. Having established how the colour line fractures urban space at this level, I then trace its course through other spaces and places. Chapter Two looks at political events taking place on the streets of Harlem, from marches to riots, noting that, by deliberately occupying and writing on the urban fabric, these events create a kind of place in time. Chapter Three looks closely at street activity in more general terms, uncovering how city space is negotiated, claimed and defended as African Americans become urban and learn to 'know their place'. Chapter Four enters the Harlem apartment, a private space compromised by social and economic forces but where African Americans have created a 'home place'. Chapter Five examines what Adrienne Rich calls 'the geography closest in': the body as it appears in the space of the photographic studio and in the context of other places in the city. Chapter Six draws these themes together by looking at The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a photo text about Harlem, as a story of spaces and spatial practices. Finally, my broad arguments and findings are briefly summed up in Conclusions.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Tallack, D.G.
Keywords: Segregation, Politics of photography, Photographic culture in Harlem, Social aspects of photography, Race and photography
Subjects: T Technology > TR Photography
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of American and Canadian Studies
Item ID: 14161
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 25 Apr 2014 09:34
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2017 09:33

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