Looking in/looking out : the intersection of race, subjectivity, and feelings in 1950s and 1960s U.S. photography

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Duganne, Erina Deirdre

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In this dissertation, I consider an intricate network of photographic images of African Americans produced by a racially diverse yet historically and geographically specific group of photographers that circulated in such physical spaces as the print media, sociological studies, and New York art exhibitions as well as less tangible ones, including systems of beliefs and points of view. In selecting this group of photographers and discursive spaces, however, I do not try to be comprehensive about any of the photographers or the circumstances in which their images were exhibited or reproduced. Rather I use this network of representations to address the specific set of social and material conditions surrounding the production and reception of images of African Americans as well as those more elusive attitudes, feelings, and values that influenced the manner in which these representations came to acquire meaning during the 1950s and 1960s. Exploring the discursive formations of these representations of race has been an especially useful approach for my study. In considering how a photograph’s meaning is viii dependent upon the contingencies of its public and private uses, I have been able to call attention to an issue neglected in most studies on post-war African American and U.S. photography in general, subjectivity. In reinstating the importance of subjectivity to this period, however, I use the subject not as the sole or unique source of meaning of a photograph but as a set of relational associations. This approach represents an implicit challenge to conventional readings of 1950s and 1960s African American photography, which evaluate these images, in contrast to their post 1980s counterparts, in terms of the binary structure of positive/negative images. Rather than define the relationship between these two periods as oppositional, in my dissertation, I consider them as a continuum. This historical rearticulation has in turn provided me with the conceptual framework to investigate how 1950s and 1960s African American photographers used their works not as “counter images” but as a means of participating in the self-reflexive questioning of the photographic medium that currently characterizes scholarship on post 1980s African American and black photography in general.



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