Two recently published titles - The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (SPBH, 2019) and The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion (Aperture, 2019) both emphasise that we live in times of inclusion and postmodern feminism - topics that are finally discussed in the open, and what’s perhaps even more significant: in the context of our beloved medium.
The Image of Whiteness, edited by photography researcher and lecturer Daniel Campbell Blight, offers a discussion about race in the Western world. It almost instantly kicks you in the eye with its cover depicting a white middle-class family in the comfort of their picture-perfect house full of books and art: indicating that race does intersect with socioeconomic status and education.
"(...) black women as represented in the media are either to be seen as objects of desire or as identical to white women - with eyes, skin and hair altered in postproduction to fit the Western beauty standards."
This book exposes the often unacknowledged, everyday visuals that prop up a grotesque system of white supremacy. The New Black Vanguard, by the independent curator and critic Antwaun Sargent, also draws our attention to race and inclusion. However, its focus is more on the portrayal of black models in fashion and on a radical transformation that is happening in fashion and art today.
The appearance of Beverly Johnson, the first black model on the Vogue cover in 1974, indicated that black women as represented in the media are either to be seen as objects of desire or as identical to white women - with eyes, skin and hair altered in postproduction to fit the Western beauty standards. For many years this disregard of the differences reduced the human view of the world to the privileged perspective of white people and it made black models feel either objectified or completely excluded from the fashion industry.
The situation today is that black people are now demanding to be depicted respectfully - with grace, beauty and allure, a tendency of ‘black consciousness’ thoroughly discussed in academic publications such as: Why I'm No longer Talking to White People About Race (2017), by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, or White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2016), by Gloria Wekker – a Surinam-Dutch anthropologist specialised in Gender Studies and Caribbean Studies. But what is so specifically important about The New Black Vanguard is that it discusses issues of sexuality, ethnicity, and postcolonialism within the specific context of photography.
The book is a combination of essays and photographs by several artists such as Nancy Burson, Nate Lewis, Ken Gonzales-Day, David Birkin, Libita Clayton to name but a few. It outlines cultural and theoretical debates on race from a variety of critical perspectives and suggests how every one of us could engage differently with history and cultural politics; with a reject or even denial of oppression. Powered by conversations with contemporary African-American artists Shaniqwa Jarvis, Mickalene Thomas and Deborah Willis, and supported with the images by talented black photographers such as Dana Scruggs, Daniel Obasi, Stephen Tayo among others, The New Black Vanguard debates issues of inclusion, analyses the role of photography in fashion publications and shows the evolution of creation of the commercial black image.
"For many years this disregard of the differences reduced the human view of the world to the privileged perspective of white people and it made black models feel either objectified or completely excluded from the fashion industry."
In line with the scope of The Image of Whiteness, it proposes strong visual arguments that reveal the origins of the vectors of oppression and privilege and make the viewer develop a critical vision towards the photographs as appearing in print media. Both titles simultaneously present and shape social views on race and can be a great asset not just to those merely interested in the (academic) discussion of postmodern feminism, but to anyone who wants to accompany the changes in the portrayal of both the white and the black body during the course of history until the present day.
You can also read the reviews of the two books in GUP63 - Portraits of Life.