Photographic Returns

Racial Justice and the Time of Photography

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 75 illustrations, incl.19 in color Published: January 2020

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Cultural Studies

In Photographic Returns Shawn Michelle Smith traces how historical moments of racial crisis come to be known photographically and how the past continues to inhabit, punctuate, and transform the present through the photographic medium in contemporary art. Smith engages photographs by Rashid Johnson, Sally Mann, Deborah Luster, Lorna Simpson, Jason Lazarus, Carrie Mae Weems, Taryn Simon, and Dawoud Bey, among others. Each of these artists turns to the past—whether by using nineteenth-century techniques to produce images or by re-creating iconic historic photographs—as a way to use history to negotiate the present and to call attention to the unfinished political project of racial justice in the United States. By interrogating their use of photography to recall, revise, and amplify the relationship between racial politics of the past and present, Smith locates a temporal recursivity that is intrinsic to photography, in which images return to haunt the viewer and prompt reflection on the present and an imagination of a more just future.


“Offering a major contribution to how we think about the relationship between time and photography, Shawn Michelle Smith stuns the reader into seeing familiar texts in new ways. Her scholarship is a model of careful thinking, close reading, clear writing, and historical sensibility. I learned so much from reading this book! It is a spectacular accomplishment.” — Elspeth H. Brown, author of Work! A Queer History of Modeling

Photographic Returns is nothing less than a revelation. Shawn Michelle Smith takes us on a deep dive into the telescoping temporality of photography and, in doing so, fundamentally shifts our understanding of how photographic images register backward and forward in time. The hinge point of her study is its sumptuous reading of contemporary artists' use of photography as a critical apparatus that bends time in ways that connect us to the deeper affects of history. Her haunting, subtle, and truly sensuous analysis of the aftereffects of historical photography fundamentally re-visions our conception of the relationship between photography, history, memory, and temporality.” — Tina M. Campt, author of Listening to Images

"The charm in Smith’s writing lies in its ability to pair images (archival, vintage, popular) with reinterpretations by contemporary artists. These visitations—or, as she calls them, returns—magnify the persistent terror of white supremacy in the United States. Her chapters all bring readers to see the obvious and forgotten aspects of antiblack racism. The book positions these photographs as reminders that justice in the United States has not yet arrived." — Yasmine Espert, Public Books

"Seen through their photographic eyes, racial historical events resurface to inspire, challenge, provoke, and provide metaphoric opportunities that reveal and expand conversations in an attempt to energize the social justice movement in the US. A much-needed addition to the literature on the pressing subject of race, representation, and photography, the book includes extensive and informative notes for each chapter and a 16-page insert of color plates." — J. Natal, Choice


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Price: $25.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; author of At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen and Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture; and coeditor of Photography and the Optical Unconscious and Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity; all also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction: Photographic Returns  1
1. Looking Forward and Looking Back: Rashid Johnson and Frederick Douglass on Photography  16
2. Photographic Remains: Sally Mann at Antietam  34
3. The Scene of the Crime: Deborah Luster  61
4. Photographic Referrals: Lorna Simpson's 9 Props  93
5. Afterimages: Jason Lazarus  112
6. Photographic Reenactments: Carrie Mae Weems's Constructing History  133
7. False Returns: Taryn Simon's The Innocents  152
Coda. A Glimpse Forward: Dawoud Bey's The Birmingham Project  170
Notes  175
Bibliography  213
Index  229
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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A 2020 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title

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