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    View of the top of the East Building tower, with green trees on each side

    Members’ Reports

    Phoebe Wolfskill
    Center 42

    Phoebe Wolfskill

    Photography, Painting, and the Early Twentieth-Century Black Subject

    My fellowship at the Center furthered the research and writing of my book, “Photography, Painting, and the Early Twentieth-Century Black Subject,” which considers the interrelationship between social realist art and late 19th- and early 20th-century photography in their respective capability for broadening visual portrayals of African Americans. Social realism, as a genre of art, relies on figurative reduction and distortion to create sociopolitical as well as affective responses to complex human conditions and environments. Photography also responds to one’s surroundings yet presumes greater claims to veracity due to the indexical nature of the photograph, which captures what appears before its lens. My book explores the codependency of these two media in representing African American populations from the Great Depression through World War II. This period furthered the Harlem Renaissance’s quest for fresh images of Blackness, while heightening attention to social and economic plight. 

    Ben Shahn, Untitled (Scotts Run, West Virginia), October 1935, digital film from original negative, Library of Congress, number 006115-M4

    Photography has long been embraced by public intellectuals and activists, including Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, among countless Black photographic practitioners, as a remedy to the debased images of Blackness ubiquitous in popular culture. My project considers the vital role of photography in this regard, and specifically how it functioned as source material for Black modernists Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), and Charles White (1918–1979), all who carefully researched and selected photographs for artistic translation. These photographs, some famous and some less known, position Black complexity and nuance as central themes. My project asks how, when, and why these modernists relied on photographs for inspiration, while considering the artist’s unique process of looking, choosing, and transforming as he/she moves from photograph to canvas or print. 

    I begin by examining select Farm Security Administration (FSA) images taken by Ben Shahn (1898–1969) of African American subjects in the mid-1930s, some of which were appropriated by Romare Bearden in the early 1940s. Employing Nicole Fleetwood’s concept of “non-iconicity” and Tina Campt’s attention to photographic refusal, I analyze Shahn’s deceptively mundane images as enlivened by their mystery and rejection of definitive narratives. I position Shahn’s images within a larger body of work that makes up the FSA photographic archive, while highlighting how key photographs from this period impede singular readings of Blackness, poverty, and need, and thus create a sense of Black humanity and futurity unconstrained by standard tropes. This focus responds to the lack of attention to these more nuanced images, arguing that penetrating images of African Americans are still needed today in a media culture that accentuates tragic or heroic portrayals of Blacks at the expense of more complex, open-ended, and humanizing images. 

    Romare Bearden, Folk Musicians, c. 1941–1942, gouache with ink and graphite on brown paper, Minneapolis Institute of Art. Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by ARS, New York

    Select FSA images by Shahn evidently inspired Romare Bearden, as he used them as a foundation for some of his early social realist paintings (c. 1940–1942). Bearden’s strategy of basing his paintings on Shahn’s images was unremarked before my research. Many scholars have explored Bearden’s early work through a biographical lens that emphasizes his southern heritage, travels, and personal interest in southern Black themes. Although a sense of nostalgia absolutely infuses this work, I argue that Bearden’s early work is considerably more loaded in terms of its aesthetic project. Bearden is particularly famous for his application of fragmented photographs and newsprint in collages from the 1960s onward, but his adoption of Shahn’s FSA photographs suggests an earlier and distinct relationship to photographic sources. Functioning outside of the documentary work of Shahn, Bearden’s paintings foreground his subjective response to Black photographic subjects as he transforms bodies and narratives within the space of the canvas. 

    I further my attention to photographic viewing and interpretation by investigating Elizabeth Catlett’s and Charles White’s methods of appropriating documentary images. Here, I consider the dependence of their social realism on photography, as well as documentary photography’s reliance on familiar themes of family, domesticity, and labor, drawn from the history of Western art. Specific works of the 1930s and 1940s by Catlett and White, I argue, speak to contemporary methods of understanding American life through attention to race, gender, and socioeconomic class based on preexisting images and assumptions. I focus specifically on the ways in which these artists looked to documentary images, which ranged from 19th-century cartes de visite to FSA photographs, for inspiration, transformation, and storytelling. By contrast, the outright rejection of photographic sources also requires consideration. Does a lynching photograph or a portrait of Harriet Tubman need to be a source for storytelling? When does the photographic image potentially hinder artistic narrative and style? Bearden, Catlett, and White raise these questions throughout their oeuvres. My project seeks a fundamentally new understanding of the working methods of these artists, while also creating fresh insights into the relationship between photography and social realist painting and printmaking. 

    Indiana University
    Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, summer 2021

    Phoebe Wolfskill will return to her position as associate professor in the Departments of American Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University in fall 2021. Her most recent publication, “Photographic Disruption in the Work of Emma Amos,” appears in Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, edited by Shawnya L. Harris.