Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Karen Miller

Subject Categories

Africana Studies | Fine Arts | Interdisciplinary Arts and Media | Other American Studies | Other Film and Media Studies | Visual Studies

Keywords

Documentary photography, Black art, Documentary film

Abstract

This thesis concerns the photographic representation of Black bodies in new, reflexive documentary forms that have been increasingly produced and exhibited in the midst of America’s renewed discourse on race. Approaching this argument categorically, focused on the themes of fabulation and fragmentation, my task here is to uncover the gaps and overlaps between earlier critiques of the documentary image and more recent discourse on photography and race by exploring the specific methods through which select recent documentary projects embed and expand these critiques.

Fragmentation is a category of production I use to frame a movement of Black photographic artists toward ways of upending traditional photographic narratives. I will argue that this movement in part fulfills a need for what Nichole Fleetwood calls “non-iconicity,” or “the ways in which singular images or signs come to represent a whole host of historical occurrences and processes.”[1] The strategy of fragmentation functions to disrupt one of photography’s most celebrated qualities: the ability to isolate a moment from the flow of time and transform it into an object that signifies a narrative. My chief example is RaMell Ross’ film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018); additionally, I look to recent work by Khalik Allah, and photo-conceptualist Hank Willis Thomas.

Fabulation is a notion I borrow from historian Saidiya Hartman, who uses it to describe her method of writing histories of transgressive 19th century Black women and queer people in particular, records of whom exist only in the margins of recorded history: criminal and social work archives. The practice of fabulation informs many recent works that seek to create a visual document of that which either could not have been depicted, or was simply omitted from recorded history. My key example is Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019, which mobilize the documentary impulse by presenting historical fact, but lives outside the boundaries of existing genre in its invention of the imagined lived experience of their Black subjects, an experience too often omitted from the archives of history. Turning to other recent works, I cite photographers Dawoud Bey and Nona Faustine, both of whom insert a fictive character or perspective in their photographs. Fabulation strains another defining quality of photography, the conception of photography’s indexicality.

Both of these categories of artwork reflect our ever-changing sense of the medium’s relationship to truth, and offer a critique of documentary practice that updates those that prevailed in the art world from the 1970s forward.

[1] Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011), 2.

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