Photography is a field where the psychic power of fantasy meets the power of the marketplace. The economic incentive to stimulate viewers who enjoyed visualization of racial difference has affected the ways that numerous photographers in America have represented all the peoples of the country as well as their very choice to do so (41).
From the beginning of the chapter, Fusco marks photography as a space of imagination, where can make it seem as though “we can know who we are and who we were” (13). She also marks photography as a “public, communal activity” (13). These two thoughts lead what follows in the rest of the chapter. Photography becomes a tool of public imagination, and a way to position oneself in society. One of the most salient ways people are positioned in the United States is through race. National identity is defined through whiteness both socially and legally, where those bodies marked as not white were granted limited access to rights and social mobility (13-17). “Rather than recording the existence of race, photography produced race as a visualizable fact” (16). The legacy of this history is still present, especially when we look at the commodification of ethnicity and race as produced by the entertainment industry (18). “Because race is an imaginary construct that is also a social fact with political ramifications, the act of making it visible entails generating believable fictions and demonstrating the effect of their credibility” (26).
Part of the construction of race and photography is the imagined distance between groups. While Fusco does not go in depth into the spatial aspects of Race making in the United States, its presence is still visible throughout the essay. In the description of the legal and popular consciousness, there is talk of “public acts with measurable effects and a private world of image consumption and fantasy” (18). She also discusses photography’s ability to render and deliver “interracial encounters that might be dangerous, forbidden, or unattainable as safe and consumable experiences” (20). Photography places the photographed subject in worlds, and allows the viewer to encounter these worlds. Though the creation of these worlds is an imagined experience, the act of viewing is an act of both world creating and travelling. Mass-market photography becomes the “domain for the imagination where fantasies did not have to remain within the bounders of time, space, law, or decorum—but where pleasure was predicated on the awareness of limits and roles” (20). What becomes important is who is creating those worlds and to what ends?
Fusco speaks of the “aestheticizing of natural and of preindustrial societies” created by the visual tropes of photography (21). I would like to add the idea of anesthetizing nature of seeing the repetition of these tropes over and over again. As the imagined encounter is re-produced and re-encounterd, the thoughts are re-inscribed until they become part of the social reality. We can see this in action when we think of the proliferation of the heavily airbrushed images is mass-market photographic content. While we know that most of the photographs are modified beyond recognition, we socially feel more comfortable encountering the imagined ideal than the untouched reality. Photography allows us to erase some of the space we place between our real and imagined worlds.
In addition to the spatial component of the imagined world of the photograph, another aspect that is central for Fusco, so central that it is in the title of the essay, is time. Photography created an interesting relationship with time and the other. “The ethnographic trope of staging evolutionary time” (21), illustrates and interesting disconnect photography creates with regards to time. If with space, photography allows for a collapsing of worlds, in terms of time, it creates more distance. The time of the photographed is staged. When looking at the racial other (in relation to whiteness), time is staged to look as though it is more distant and primitive. These representations were often exaggerated for the purpose of humor when taken outside of political and scientific propaganda (21). This is another area I would like to push. While there is an acknowledgement counter imagery being produced, showing the “Other” dressed as though civilized, what the existence of these two versions does to the temporal aspect of the imagined world of the other is something I find fascinating. Because the other needed to be staged, today, as in the day of the photograph, as though they are in an imagined then, a there was created. As such, the temporal aspect of the racialized “Other-as-photograph” exists out of time. The raced (where race means non-white) body was constructed to be seen at a future time. This allowed for the racialized body to become a body that could be commodified in specific ways because it became the body to be written, or scripted. Studios became “laboratories for the fabrication of multiple selves. Photographed performances of racial transvestisim in which whites could express their repressed ‘inner primitives’ and nonwhites were dressed as wild savages, or demonstrated their abilities to ‘perform whiteness’ were popular” (21-22). It is this scripting of self and other that we still see in the realms Fusco marks, “music, literature, film television, pornography, tourism, advertising, fashion and beauty products” (22). The historical legacy of race scripting has not ben erased.
Fusco goes on to frame the exhibit, or rather, put it in context (24-26). As a project that is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, there seems to be a need to show more than one side. The topics the book covers are complex, and the exhibit tries to create themes for understanding and engagement.
The second half of the Essay starts to explore the theoretical framework Fusco used in thinking through the project. The first theoretical stop, “Racial imagery as mythical speech” (26), is clearly a nod to Barthes’ “Myth Today”. An interesting link is made between Barthes reading of the image of the Black French soldier and Fanon’s concepts of blackness (26). Fusco states,“when it works effectively…mythical speech makes a particular view of history seem like nature. If we analyze the intent of the myth, we discredit its content as a simple fact of life” (29). In reading this, I could not help but go back to Fanon, specifically the translation of the title of chapter 5 in Black Skin, White Masks. The title was originally translated as “the Fact of Blackness” but changed in more recent translations to “the Lived Experience of the Black Man”. Much like the documentary photographs Fusco analyzes, the title shows something that is first presented as fact, but later revealed to be fabricated, a carefully crafted experience of blackness, or, in the case of the photograph analyzed, American Indians. As we move further from the time when a photograph was seen as a factual representation, we begin to understand that all photographs carry myths, especially given the role of race in the United States. In this acknowledgement we open photography to citational play, something Fusco explores in looking at the imagery of Paul Pfeiffer, Todd Haynes and Celia Alvarez Muñoz (29-31).
Fusco offers a succinct genealogy of race in “The evolution of race” (32-35). This section goes over the linguistic and scientific evolution of the term and concept, as well as the legacies of these realms. Fusco, through Winant, pushes back on the idea of race being a category that is no longer important (34-35). She goes goes back to the spatial language of race saying, “it is rooted in a logic that emerges from binary relationships of domination, its meaning is constrained by poles of difference (35).
The last two sections of the essay, “Framing whiteness” (35-41) and “Racial politics and racial fantasies” (41-48), work together to expand on some of the importance of the history and social structures from the first part of the essay.
In framing whiteness a counterpoint to photograph producing the racialized subject is presented. As much as photography produced the raced body, it also helped solidify the place of whitness and its construction in visual culture (36). Whiteness exists in the affective resonance of an image, it “does not need to be made visible to be present in an image; it can be expressed as the spirit of enterprise, as the power to organize the material world, and as an expansive relation to the environment” (37). Normative time and space are the realms of whiteness, something the work of John Baldessari, featured in this section, tries to capture. The other performance of whiteness that is often visualized in photographs, is patriotism. This goes back to the creation of myth. We erase bodies of color from the photographic record of patriotic types, such as cowboys, so that the imagined visual reference point is a whitewashed version of the actual (37-38). Additionally, things such as racial profiling exist to re-racialize populations at times when national security is under threat (38).
The most important part of the last chapter seems to be the relation of power in terms of the racialized image. Early ethnographic imagery was seen as a means of accessing power vicariously (42). This early relationship to power is something that means that, even though we legally have dismantled racism, it still exists in our visual matrix in much the same way. Fusco calls for a deconstructing of photography and the racial photographic index (43). She states that we need to critically reflect on what we are given when looking at all forms of photography (45). We need to do this because even when we look at racial photographs that we see as beautiful today, they are still communicating something to us about race in the present (44). This, again, relates to the ability of raced photos to collapse time, and inevitable feel inherently political (48).