Photographic Returns: A New Book on Racial Justice and the Time of Photography

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography was recently published by Duke University Press.


Author of Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography is Shawn Michelle Smith, Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She studies the history and theory of photography and race and gender in U.S. visual culture, and much of her work has focused on early African American photography. Photographic Returns is her seventh book. Other titles include At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen, which won the 2014 Lawrence W. Levine Award for best book in American cultural history from the Organization of American Historians, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, co-edited with Maurice O. Wallace, and Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture.

In Photographic Returns Shawn Michelle Smith traces how historical moments of racial crisis come to be known photographically and how the past continues to inhabit, punctuate, and transform the present through the photographic medium in contemporary art. Smith engages photographs by Rashid Johnson, Sally Mann, Deborah Luster, Lorna Simpson, Jason Lazarus, Carrie Mae Weems, Taryn Simon, and Dawoud Bey, among others. Each of these artists turns to the past—whether by using nineteenth-century techniques to produce images or by re-creating iconic historic photographs—as a way to use history to negotiate the present and to call attention to the unfinished political project of racial justice in the United States. By interrogating their use of photography to recall, revise, and amplify the relationship between racial politics of the past and present, Smith locates a temporal recursivity that is intrinsic to photography, in which images return to haunt the viewer and prompt reflection on the present and an imagination of a more just future.

Photographic Returns is nothing less than a revelation. Shawn Michelle Smith takes us on a deep dive into the telescoping temporality of photography and, in doing so, fundamentally shifts our understanding of how photographic images register backward and forward in time. The hinge point of her study is its sumptuous reading of contemporary artists’ use of photography as a critical apparatus that bends time in ways that connect us to the deeper affects of history. Her haunting, subtle, and truly sensuous analysis of the aftereffects of historical photography fundamentally re-visions our conception of the relationship between photography, history, memory, and temporality.” — Tina M. Campt, author of Listening to Images

AAIHS Editors: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography presents contemporary art as a rich site of historical thinking and engagement for African American studies. Focused specifically on photography, it studies how contemporary artists use the photograph to draw historical moments of racial conflict and transformation into view in the present. Rashid Johnson, for example, engages the legacy of Frederick Douglass’s nineteenth-century portraits and writings about photography; Sally Mann reenacts Alexander Gardner’s Civil War battlefield photography; Lorna Simpson reimagines the space of James VanDerZee’s 1920s Harlem photography studio; Carrie Mae Weems and her collaborators re-perform the scenes of iconic Civil Rights era photographs.

I hope the book will encourage scholars to reconsider the relationship of photography to history, to understand the photograph as both metaphor and model for the ways past moments continue to inhabit a present. Photographs provide portals through which people affectively access a past and through which that past also reaches out to them. The photograph is an emblem of oscillating temporality; it is created in a present that is always also past and continually seeks a future viewer. In Photographic Returns I am especially interested in the ways contemporary artists have used the oscillating time of the photograph to draw into view the unfinished work of racial justice in the United States.

Photography studies is a growing field attuned to the wide range of photographs and the diverse cultural arenas in which they function, ranging from the family snapshot to the police mug shot, the surveillance image to the historical document, the medical specimen to the tourist memento. The field has taken up the countless images and archives left out of art historical discussions of photography and photographers. Photographic Returns brings the lens of photography studies to an examination of contemporary art, paying attention to the ways in which artists engage a wide range of historical images, including the studio portrait, the documentary photograph, and the police and prison mug shot, to consider and resist the histories and legacies of antiBlack racism in the United States. In this way it opens artworks to wide-ranging historical questions about racial conflict and resistance. I hope the book will encourage art historians to view photographic artworks through a broader cultural lens and inspire African American studies scholars to consider such works important ruminations on U.S. history and racial justice.

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