At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen

Duke University Press
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The advent of photography revolutionized perception, making visible what was once impossible to see with the human eye. In At the Edge of Sight, Shawn Michelle Smith engages these dynamics of seeing and not seeing, focusing attention as much on absence as presence, on the invisible as the visible. Exploring the limits of photography and vision, she asks: What fails to register photographically, and what remains beyond the frame? What is hidden by design, and what is obscured by cultural blindness? Smith studies manifestations of photography's brush with the unseen in her own photographic work and across the wide-ranging images of early American photographers, including F. Holland Day, Eadweard Muybridge, Andrew J. Russell, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, and Augustus Washington. She concludes by showing how concerns raised in the nineteenth century remain pertinent today in the photographs of Abu Ghraib. Ultimately, Smith explores the capacity of photography to reveal what remains beyond the edge of sight.
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About the author

Shawn Michelle Smith is Associate Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (also published by Duke University Press) and American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture; coauthor of Lynching Photographs; and coeditor of Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (also published by Duke University Press).

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Additional Information

Publisher
Duke University Press
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Published on
Nov 4, 2013
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Pages
312
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ISBN
9780822378266
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Language
English
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Genres
Art / History / Modern (late 19th Century to 1945)
Photography / History
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Throughout photography's history, failure has played an essential, recurring part in the development and perceived value of this medium. Exploring a range of failures – individual and institutional, technological and historiographical – Photography and Failure asks what it means to fail and considers how this narrative of failure has shaped our understanding of photography.

From the trial-and-error beginnings of photochemistry to poor business decisions influenced by fickle public opinion and taste, the founders and early practitioners of photography frequently faced bankruptcy and ignominy. Alongside these individual 'failures', this collection of essays examines the role of museums in rediscovering, preserving and presenting photographs within institutions, as well as technological limitations, such as the problematic panoramic lens or the digital, archival failures of Snapchat. Moving beyond the physical photograph and these processes, the book also investigates the limitations of photographs themselves, as purveyors of truth, time, space, documentary realism and social change, whether these failures are used to effect or not. Finally, the book probes the historiographical failures affecting the discipline, drawing on key debates, such as the perceived over-emphasis on European and American photography, and the place of photography theory in contemporary art practice.

Blurring the boundaries between traditional binaries of art and non-art photography, amateur and professional practice, and individual and corporate perspectives, Photography and Failure presents a new approach to understanding and evaluating photographic history.
Through a rich interpretation of the remarkable photographs W. E. B. Du Bois compiled for the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Shawn Michelle Smith reveals the visual dimension of the color line that Du Bois famously called “the problem of the twentieth century.” Du Bois’s prize-winning exhibit consisted of three albums together containing 363 black-and-white photographs, mostly of middle-class African Americans from Atlanta and other parts of Georgia. Smith provides an extensive analysis of the images, the antiracist message Du Bois conveyed by collecting and displaying them, and their connection to his critical thought. She contends that Du Bois was an early visual theorist of race and racism and demonstrates how such an understanding makes the important concepts he developed—including double consciousness, the color line, the Veil, and second sight—available to visual culture and African American studies scholars in powerful new ways.

Smith reads Du Bois’s photographs in relation to other turn-of-the-century images such as scientific typologies, criminal mugshots, racist caricatures, and lynching photographs. By juxtaposing these images with reproductions from Du Bois’s exhibition archive, Smith shows how Du Bois deliberately challenged racist representations of African Americans. Emphasizing the importance of comparing multiple visual archives, Photography on the Color Line reinvigorates understandings of the stakes of representation and the fundamental connections between race and visual culture in the United States.

The spellbinding story, part fairy tale, part suspense, of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the most emblematic portraits of its time; of the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted fate that befell it.
 
The Lady in Gold, considered an unforgettable masterpiece, one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable paintings, made headlines all over the world when Ronald Lauder bought it for $135 million a century after Klimt, the most famous Austrian painter of his time, completed the society portrait.
 
Anne-Marie O’Connor, writer for The Washington Post, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, tells the galvanizing story of the Lady in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer, a dazzling Viennese Jewish society figure; daughter of the head of one of the largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire, head of the Oriental Railway, whose Orient Express went from Berlin to Constantinople; wife of Ferdinand Bauer, sugar-beet baron.
 
The Bloch-Bauers were art patrons, and Adele herself was considered a rebel of fin de siècle Vienna (she wanted to be educated, a notion considered “degenerate” in a society that believed women being out in the world went against their feminine “nature”). The author describes how Adele inspired the portrait and how Klimt made more than a hundred sketches of her—simple pencil drawings on thin manila paper.
 
And O’Connor writes of Klimt himself, son of a failed gold engraver, shunned by arts bureaucrats, called an artistic heretic in his time, a genius in ours.
 
She writes of the Nazis confiscating the portrait of Adele from the Bloch-Bauers’ grand palais; of the Austrian government putting the painting on display, stripping Adele’s Jewish surname from it so that no clues to her identity (nor any hint of her Jewish origins) would be revealed. Nazi officials called the painting, The Lady in Gold and proudly exhibited it in Vienna’s Baroque Belvedere Palace, consecrated in the 1930s as a Nazi institution.
 
The author writes of the painting, inspired by the Byzantine mosaics Klimt had studied in Italy, with their exotic symbols and swirls, the subject an idol in a golden shrine.
 
We see how, sixty years after it was stolen by the Nazis, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became the subject of a decade-long litigation between the Austrian government and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, how and why the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case, and how the Court’s decision had profound ramifications in the art world.
 
A riveting social history; an illuminating and haunting look at turn-of-the-century Vienna; a brilliant portrait of the evolution of a painter; a masterfully told tale of suspense. And at the heart of it, the Lady in Gold—the shimmering painting, and its equally irresistible subject, the fate of each forever intertwined.
Photography is one of the principal filters through which we engage the world. The contributors to this volume focus on Walter Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious to investigate how photography has shaped history, modernity, perception, lived experience, politics, race, and human agency. In essays that range from examinations of Benjamin's and Sigmund Freud's writings to the work of Kara Walker and Roland Barthes's famous Winter Garden photograph, the contributors explore what photography can teach us about the nature of the unconscious. They attend to side perceptions, develop latent images, discover things hidden in plain sight, focus on the disavowed, and perceive the slow. Of particular note are the ways race and colonialism have informed photography from its beginning. The volume also contains photographic portfolios by Zoe Leonard, Kelly Wood, and Kristan Horton, whose work speaks to the optical unconscious while demonstrating how photographs communicate on their own terms. The essays and portfolios in Photography and the Optical Unconscious create a collective and sustained assessment of Benjamin's influential concept, opening up new avenues for thinking about photography and the human psyche.

Contributors. Mary Bergstein, Jonathan Fardy, Kristan Horton, Terri Kapsalis, Sarah Kofman, Elisabeth Lebovici, Zoe Leonard, Gabrielle Moser, Mignon Nixon, Thy Phu, Mark Reinhardt, Shawn Michelle Smith, Sharon Sliwinski, Laura Wexler, Kelly Wood, Andrés Mario Zervigón
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