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Journal Article

Photography and the Practices of Critical Black Memory

Leigh Raiford
History and Theory
Vol. 48, No. 4, Theme Issue 48: Photography and Historical Interpretation (Dec., 2009), pp. 112-129
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621443
Page Count: 18
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Photography and the Practices of Critical Black Memory
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Abstract

Not too long after photography's grand debut in 1839, physician and inventor Oliver Wendell Holmes described the new technology as a "mirror with a memory." What might this phrase mean for the question of African Americans and their relationship to the vicissitudes of photography and the vagaries of memory in particular? Through readings of works of art and social activism that make use of lynching photographs, this essay considers ways in which photography has functioned as a technology of memory for African Americans, what the essay calls critical black memory, and proffers a mode of historical interpretation that both plays upon and questions photography's documentary capacity. The essay makes two claims specifically. First, the mechanical reproduction of lynching by way of the photograph has been central to the recounting and reconstitution of black political cultures throughout the Jim Crow and post-Civil Rights era. From the usage of lynching photography in pamphlets by early twentieth-century anti-lynching activists, to posters created by mid-century civil rights organizations, to their deployment in contemporary art and popular culture, this archive has been a constitutive element of black visuality more broadly. Second, African American engagements with photography as a "site of memory" suggest a mode of historical interpretation in which African Americans simultaneously critique the "truth-claims" of photography while they mobilize the medium's documentary capacity to intervene in the classification and subjugation of black life.

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