Leigh Raiford’s examination of photography’s participation during three critical moments in African American history is an exemplary and engaging work that advances the conversation of African Americans and the making of America, then and now. Raiford’s text is thick with detailed evidence to back up her penetrating and provocative analysis. Raiford employs three interrogation sites, the black body, the black eye, and black memory to view the photographic image at the edges, the center, and over time.
Chapter 1 looks at the anti-lynching campaign of the early twentieth-century and the work of Ida B. Wells and the NAACP to transform and reframe the photography of lynching into anti-lynching photography. She explores the question of how capturing the abject black body can be used to reverse the dominant discourse and serve as a unifying mode of identification that would promote social justice.
In Chapter 2 Raiford looks at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the key civil rights groups who recognized the importance of photography to not only document but also serve as a means to engage the community and gain some control over media communication.
Raiford, in Chapter 3, discusses the “insurgent visibility” of the Black Panther Party (BPP). While earlier SNCC photographs had brought individuals like Bob Moses from Harlem to the south, the “heightened visibility” of the Black Panther Party recruited blacks in the north to take a stand in their own neighborhoods. The Black Panther Party knew a key site to wage their battle for black liberation was in the field of visibility, image making, and performance. The Black Panther Party sought to revise the definition of the black body, and treat black people as looking subjects worthy of direct address. This was done, in part, by the party uniform, the black beret, leather jackets, afro, and the creative use of photographic images.
In her final chapter, Raiford engages us in the present moment through her analysis of the Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000) traveling exhibit that displayed photographs from the anti-lynching period; the fortieth anniversary of the BPP Black Panther Rank and File (2006) show displaying amateur and professional photography of the BPP, and contemporary artwork inspired by the BPP movement; and the Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968 exhibit (2008) at the High Museum in Atlanta commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination with close to two hundred images of the civil rights era. Raiford examines the meaning of these historical photographs for contemporary audiences.
As noted earlier, Leigh Raiford’s work adds a welcomed voice and perspective to the visual dialogue between past and present, as we attempt to understand the significant role photography played in visualizing the black material subject, black spectatorship, and black memory.
Maurice L. Bryan Jr., California State University, Chico