My writing grows out of my interest in photography’s cultural power.
Because photographs have such a rooted and far-reaching presence in our lives, we are often not aware of the ways that they shape and reflect cultural attitudes. How a subject is represented, or not, can have significant implications, and what we don’t see is as important as what we do.
One question I often ask myself is, “ What kinds of photographs am I NOT seeing?”
When I asked myself, in the late 1970’s, “Where are the photographs made BY (not of) non-Westerners?”, the question led to six months of research in China, and my subsequent essay entitled “Chinese Photography: Notes toward a Cross-Cultural Analysis of a Western Medium” (.pdf 2.2MB). This essay was published in Afterimage in January 1982, at a time when very few people were thinking about work made by photographers outside the U.S. or Europe. My interest in non-Western photography and its place in photographic history continues into the present.
When I asked myself, “Why do I see so few photographs of upper class people?”, the question led to writing about the work of Barbara Norfleet. one of the first photographers to pursue in-depth photographic documentation of American upper class society. My essay “Looking up at the Upper Class: the Photographs of Barbara P. Norfleet” (.pdf 742KB) was published in 1989 in Exposure (Vol 26, No. 2/3).
And when I asked myself, in the mid 1980’s, “Why do I NOT see photographs of pregnant women that acknowledge the complexity of this bodily state?”, this question led to extensive research, and ultimately to the publication of the book Pregnant Pictures, co-authored with Laura Wexler (Routledge, 2000). The book investigates how the meanings of photographs of pregnant women change across the domains of art photography, advertising, medical imaging, snapshots, instructional photography and magazines. It is a history of photographs of the pregnant body in the U.S. between the late 19th century and the end of the 20th century, and it takes into account how both the absence and the presence of photographs influence public and private life. The book includes over 200 photographs – arguably the most extensive and diverse collection of photographs of pregnancy to be found anywhere.
Such investigations of photography, power and cultural politics then led me to think about photographic portraits and their connection to social issues.
A local controversy in the 1990’s over the public display of photographs of LGBT families got me interested in the activist potential of family portraits. My essay “In Defense of Civil Rights: The Paradoxical Power of Family Photographs” (.pdf 1.4MB) explores this issue in relation to the work of the writer/photographer team Peggy Gillespie and Gigi Kaeser (Afterimage, winter 2003).
And my essay “Courage in the Face of History: Cross-Cultural Portraits” (.pdf 836KB) discusses the question of cultural survival in the aftermath of war. The essay looks at work by artists Delilah Montoya, Alma Lopez, Sheila Pinkel and Meridel Rubinstein, and was published in the book Masquerade: Women’s Contemporary Portrait Photography (ed. Kate Newton and Christine Rolph, IRIS International Centre for Women in Photography, 2003).