Writer Conversations #6

Daniel C. Blight

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London and Lecturer in Photography (Historical & Critical Studies) at University of Brighton. Recent work includes “Ways of Seeing Whiteness” in George Yancy: A Critical Introduction, eds. Kimberley Ducey, Joe R. Feagin and Clevis Headley (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (SPBH Editions/Art on the Underground 2019). He is currently working on a monograph, Photography’s White Racial Frame (Bloomsbury 2024), and slowly completing a PhD in the faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London. In April 2022, he will be Visiting Scholar, Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I developed an interest in photography via post-rock and “electronica” album covers. The cityscape on the front of Fugazi’s End Hits (1998), the obliquely angled road sign on Hoover’s The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 (1994), or the pixelated “terrain” on the cover of Autechre’s Incunabula (1993) LP, which I took to be extra-terrestrial Swindon as I walked its streets, mashed at night, strangely under-stimulated. 20 years ago in that place, I made digital photographs and electronic music as part of a photography foundation course at Swindon College because, having quit my A Levels to become a pizza chef, it was the only route to university, an overdraft and a student loan.

My work then involved software editing digital photographs into CD artwork for the glitchy music I was making. I recorded the mechanical sounds of analogue camera shutters, cutting them up and sequencing them into drumbeats, and then manipulating tonally-inverted photographs of lightning to visually represent the glitches. It was as bad as it sounds. One of the compositions I completed then was titled Just take the fucking photo. This was the first time I wrote about photographs – or should that be “photography”? – eventually repeating the phrase into a microphone and layering the recorded voice track over camera shutter rhythms constructed in Fruity Loops, an audio sequencer of sorts.

My first experience of writing about photography is a species of repetitive song lyric: “Just take the fucking photo”, I wrote aggressively, over and over, on a piece of note paper in my teenage bedroom. In a sense, all my writing about photography since then has been born from the frustration captured in that phrase. Although I like to think I’m able to work with more “complex” forms of writing nowadays, there is a large part of me that appreciates teenage quotidian writing, an adolescent poetic writing, a writing apart from the perceived maturity of scholarly aptitude and normative citation practices.

On reflection, I feel there is something to learn from my frustration. What if my writing is frustration? What if I was supposed to be a writer not because I had anything interesting to say, but so that I could enjoy all the other things I do because my frustrations were absorbed by and confined to my writing? I count myself lucky that I have figured out how to confine frustration. I’ve sealed it into a sort of literary defeat.

What is your writing process?

‘Process’ sounds like such a clinical and serious word to describe how I write, although I like the sound of one of the word’s synonyms — ‘unfolding’. A procrastinatory unfolding. I enjoy reducing myself to a state of under-stimulation over a period of two or three days. Eventually, boredom compels me to write. At that point the smallest thing feels new, wakes me up and gets me excited again. Often cooking, or fixating on a particular image in a book.  

I spend most of my time not writing. I find this a necessary part of the process leading up to the act itself (which is both a struggle and a performance to myself – can I do it? Should I do it? Will it work?). Things don’t unfold this way deliberately. Most of the time, I just can’t write. It seems too hard, too difficult. I think coming to terms with this is the most important part of my writing in a philosophical sense. I like the idea, more and more, of slow writing, and of selective writing.

The rest is practical: reading, mostly on a screen, apart from poetry which I tend to read on paper. Looking at pictures in printed books. Making mental notes. Forgetting things. Then eventually I write something when I feel I can. I collect quotations when I’m reading. When I’m writing essays, I often use these to structure text. I write before them, after them, in the middle of them to disrupt them, and to see what happens. I largely write in incoherent, broken fragments which I call paragraphs. I can’t always be clear because I don’t really know what I mean. I call this writerly honesty. I’m trying to describe a feeling using words that are always wrong.

Since 2013, I’ve been making visual cues to aid my writing. I call these Image Reconstructions and they are collages comprised of visual symbols that summarise the subjects of texts I am working on. I collect images in folders as I research and read: the QAnon “logo”, a photograph of some weed, a Creative Commons image of oil burning on the surface of the sea, a .png of a pizza held up by a white hand. I then group them together into meaningful compositions (see the image nug, 2021). The rest is a weird form of visualisation in which images come to life through speculation, appropriation, trying things out to visually represent meaning. Sometimes I can’t finish the essay, or the poem, and it instead becomes an image reconstructed from the practice of writing. Sometimes I can’t finish the image. Most of the time nothing is finished, and nothing gets made, and that’s OK too.  

It sounds a cliché – and I hate the empty verbosity of the conceptual framing – but I prefer to write with photographs rather than about or, in the oft-repeated phrase, on them. I produce an essay plan using images and quotations in close and strange juxtapositions. I look for resonances, contradictions, parallels. My habits have been reformed by The Virus and by family life, particularly children. I no longer feel a need to write all the time. Most of the time I just don’t want to. I’d rather read or listen. I write towards happiness and in the direction of freedom. I’m much more comfortable with that cliché.

Can you expand on what draws you to slow writing? Is there an act of refusal, a determination to take time, in this? You’ve begun to focus much more on longer form writing over the short form.

In a sense, this isn’t true because I write many more short poems than I do long essays. Perhaps a poem a month, and two or three essays a year? I politely decline most invitations to write short form for magazines and newspapers nowadays. There are other people much better placed to comment on new projects and exhibitions than I am. There are certain spaces I don’t wish to occupy any longer. I am also disillusioned with the way badly paid short form essay writing for magazines and newspapers forces me to focus on some specious idea of right now, responding to “current practice”. Slow writing is something that the world of photography magazines can’t contend with, but they need it badly. Slow writing is a needed practice in academia too, in which scholars are forced to produce at pace to satisfy the various “excellence frameworks” they are compelled to adhere to. How many journal articles do I need to get a promotion? Are we talking 10 mediocre articles, or one bad boy one? Who gets to decide whether I’m any good or not?

If “right now” is both a fashionable position culturally speaking, and a global catastrophe unfolding in strikingly visual terms (images of the sea on fire, shamanic QAnon fascists storming the Capitol, Boris Johnson talking shit on the BBC), I’m looking to respond more slowly certainly. Part of what capitalism’s recently rejuvenated intersection with fascism requires of us is that we keep up. Move fast and stay relevant! I’m not the first person to say we should refuse that. I want to go back to a time when I could walk the streets stoned at night slowly with nowhere to be. I want to make pizzas for minimum wage again. But this time they’re texts, and I get to bake them for longer than four minutes. Unfortunately weed makes me puke now, so I can’t smoke, and I earned more money working as a waiter at Pizza Express than I do as an academic.

Slow writing is a form of epistemic protest. It says to me: stop producing knowledge habitually until you understand your own epistemic standpoint. Or: work to produce a kind of counter-knowledge that supports other people. Slowing down is me trying to be less selfish. Perhaps the “knowledge” I possess is a form of what Charles W. Mills called ‘white ignorance’ before he recently passed. I have thought about this in more detail in a chapter for a new book on the philosopher George Yancy. In that essay, I consider his work, his excellence, and myself, as I am.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I write to edge away from the disappointment of my social self. To be white, and to be a man, is in two interlinked ways to be a problem. Therefore, the superficial problem of my work is me, and by extension the fundamental problems are white supremacy and the elite white male dominance system. I write in the hope that I can become someone else, someone better. I am in my own way, tripping over my own feet. This is a process of discovery in which my social self is cracked open; breached to form a sort of aperture. I want to write despite myself. I have come to understand this more recently as a willingness on my part to become vulnerable, to fail publicly, to not care about the consequences of doing so. It’s only through a kind of risk that anything meaningful can come of my writing. The trouble is risk is predominantly about failure. My process is just that, then: attempt to escape myself; fail. A strangely productive failure.

Isn’t it true that writers can’t name themselves? My writing began with frustration, and its continuation now involves wondering whether what I write next will result in another “race traitor!” death threat via email. Yet, with this violence in mind, how can I not name myself? I am a white writer coming to terms with what it’s like to unravel in words. I think all white writers should try this. This is not a melancholy unfolding though, and it is not one that requires any emotional sympathy, nor undue attention. I am deeply happy. I am filled with love for other people’s writing, other people’s poetry, other people – for the first time in a long time.

What kind of reader are you? 

I read long essays quickly and short poems slowly. Then I read the same essays slowly and have no time left to read poems. I read with admiration, curiosity, frustration. I read searching for something I never find.

What do you go looking for in your reading?

I look for a mix of deep exegesis and personal reflection. Often one leads to the other. It’s sort of like asking what I go looking for in food. How much time do I have? Am I in the mood to cook? Do I have a Tesco lasagne I can put in the microwave, squirt extra ketchup on top of, and dip chunks of garlic bread into? Or am I in a Michelin Star pub for my birthday rinsing it hard on my credit card? When I read, I gorge uncertainly, and its often done in such a way that makes me feel I’m avoiding rather than looking for things. I’m avoiding writers like me. I do think “What do I want to read?” before I read sometimes, but it’s not like I always have much choice when one article takes me via a hyperlink to another, over and over again. I’ve read so much, partially. I keep trying to read in print again, and then I start missing all the hyperlinks, the distractions on Wikipedia, the stopping and searching for things I don’t understand in journal articles on the University of Brighton’s online library.

I enjoy reading my student’s essays. They teach me how to read and they teach me how to write. It’s a wonderful thing, teaching. I used to conceptualise it as something I did to feed myself so I could concentrate on my writing, but now it’s a thing I do to actively learn. I read with pleasure in a community of student-scholars. This year, I will work with students to encounter racial whiteness in reading photographs. This is a process in which we “let go” of the white logic and white racist visual foundations that underpin the western colonial history of photography and instead turn our attention to forms of white uncertainty. Irrespective of our individual racial identifications, we all work together in a white university. In a white space. In white complicity pedagogy, this involves de-centring forms of “knowing” and instead centres notions of white humility (“I do not know”/”I am not sure”) and white listening – learning to listen while giving up on needing to feel like a “good” white scholar. I take my lead here from educators such as Barbara Applebaum, Stephen Brookefield and Zeus Leonardo.

Reading should always be paired with writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean essay writing, but perhaps a simpler form of writing notes, questions or incomplete fragments. I encourage students to read in such a way that excites them to produce fragments of text, as roughly as they like. We then work through those texts together and make sense of them in critical relation to scholarly conventions. What results is a form of photo-textual essay practice; a manner of writing with photographs in order to produce literary essays that respond both to a history of the essay form in photographic cultures, and importantly, embodied, reflexive and phenomenological approaches to images derived from methods in visual sociology. It sounds technical, but it’s exciting, in practice, in the classroom.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

The sort of canonical history of photography taught in British Higher Education is undergirded by the white logic of European settler colonialism. This isn’t discussed nearly enough, and it has a huge impact on what is often falsely named the history of photography and how we theorise its structures and meanings (in this way history and theory go hand in hand). We desperately need new historical and theoretical frameworks because the European invention of photography from the 1830s – which is not the first invention of photography, but rather the most convenient white inauguration – is founded upon the same intellectual traditions that justify the genocide of Indigenous, Black and Brown people the world over. After Gerald Horne, let’s call this tradition the apocalypse of settler colonialism, and, after Charles W. Mills, let’s call it the white ignorance of epistemological individualism in the historical project of racial liberalism. In short, white supremacy continues to govern the world at large, and all cultural phenomena including photography falls within its scope and power.

More precisely, the European invention of photography, which is to say the “fixing” of images by such figures as William Henry Fox Talbot in the middle of the 19th century (some 200 years after the invention of racial whiteness), is a visual project that inherits the social dynamics of what Joe R. Feagin calls the white racial frame and extends this into particular types of “image-schema”. This image-schema, which I am theorising in a new book, Photography’s White Racial Frame, can be described in several ways. It is first and foremost a mental frame, or what has been described differently as the colonial gaze by Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. More precisely, this mental frame is named white scopophilia by George Yancy, and a regime of seeing by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks. These concepts share a common truth: that with the invention of racial whiteness came what might be called a psychology of colonial picturing. This is a form of white imaginary, which is of course etymologically to say white imagery. We white people look at the world through what Stuart Hall called a white eye, and we do so full of an often-unconscious desire for power, wealth and knowledge. Photography is the great inheritor of this perceptual frame, this image-schema and its false narrative of white violence then and white innocence now. Thus, I theorise the European history of photography as a white racist visual dynamic full of emancipatory potential in the hands of those artists that choose to work against it. Like racial whiteness, photography can be abolished.

Understanding the significant violence of this visual framework should result in nothing less than seeing the world in an entirely new way, and as I have contended, seeing one’s white self in an entirely new way. If curation is the care and organisation of cultural phenomena, then in a white supremacist world it either stands within or without the white racial frame. The practice of curating is an historical and theoretical positioning which takes place in relation to the history of the western museum defined as (what Dan Hicks calls) ‘white infrastructure’. So, the question becomes, why is curating now so prominent? And for me, the answer has to do with the false choices racial whiteness continues to offer curators (remember, everyone is a curator, but it is most often white people that declare themselves so or who are awarded the title institutionally). To curate is first to possess knowledge, and then to make choices based on that knowledge resulting in some objects getting attention and others not. Possession is privilege. Knowledge is racialised, gendered, made bodily. Which curatorial bodies are most prominent? Ones like mine. Like racial whiteness, white curators can be abolished too.

Your book The Image of Whiteness, examining photography’s construction and perpetuation of racialised hierarchy, felt like it could have been an exhibition, but existed in book form. Was that a choice you made, or does it reveal something about the spaces of writing and display?

The Image of Whiteness is visually intrusive and conceptually shocking for lots of white people – certainly if encountered as an exhibition, in a public museum space (white infrastructure). I owe this to the artists featured. They have done the work and I have brought it together. I think it would be interesting if there was an accompanying events programme in which people could thrash out some of the ideas in the project. George Yancy might deliver the keynote on the question of symbolic white death – he’s an excellent public speaker – and I could be available as white visitors feel more and more uncomfortable, just like I do every day as I try to learn about my white self. I would be there to care for them (the curator’s role), not to make them feel good but to make them understand that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and confused by something we are only just coming to understand: that being white is to embody a violent lie; that the exhibition is teaching us that we have been lied to, and that we are upholding that lie and that what we need do is look, and then see differently, and listen attentively. That’s what I hope The Image of Whiteness is about: rendering white people uncomfortable so that we can be challenged and then learn. We white people need to learn to feel – to racially empathise – and then to self-disclose. I’m not interested in books or exhibitions that revive whiteness or make it “good”. That is an impossibility. A paradoxical space of both white projection and display.

White self-disclosure starts from the position that there is ‘no contradiction in whites working as anti-racists and their being racist,’ as Stephen Brookefield writes. So, I start from that position in my own work, and when I encounter white denialists – those individuals socialised white that have unfortunately still not realised their racial whiteness has very little to do with their skin colour – I seek to help them through a form of creative care. Imagine if that could be communicated to an exhibition audience? This is not to say white viewers should be told they are racist upon entry to the museum, but that they will surely come to realise to be white is to be racist by the time they leave. The exhibition becomes a form of white abolitionist narrative disclosure in which white people are prompted to learn through a process of looking and seeing differently.

Whatever The Image of Whiteness is, I hope it is not a mere anti-racist declaration. I am interested in avoiding spaces of epistemic comfort for myself and other white people. I want to create thankful spaces in which abolitionist practice is uncomfortable and ongoing. An anti-white social ontology requires a complex theory of practice that understands the space between white agency and white social structure as a fissure in which a series of epistemic possibilities might be revealed. My writing, and any exhibition making that follows it, is about revealing in this way. I reject error avoidance as I will make errors as I go. In a sense to be white is to be a human error, so what would it be like to accept that glitch in the social matrix from the get-go? What if instead of conceptualising my work as “good” I call it an error – which is different from a mistake – and brings me all the way back to where I started: frustration, erratum, not writing until I have something to say, or rather, something to do.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

I admire anyone who has the courage to write against themselves.    

What texts have influenced you the most?

Here’s what is influencing me this week: Simple Men (2019) by Rachael Allen; To Revive a Person is No Slight Thing (2016) by Diane Williams; White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-Racism: How Does it Feel to Be a White Problem? (2014), edited by George Yancy; Weird Fucks (1980) by Lynne Tillman; Black Bodies, White Gold (2021) by Anna Arabindan-Kesson.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Criticism gets me in trouble. Always with white people in positions of power, which is reason enough to keep getting in trouble.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Portrait of Daniel C. Blight. © Idris Khan OBE

2-Book cover of Daniel C. Blight, The Image of Whiteness (SPBH Editions and Art on the Underground, 2019)

3-Daniel C. Blight, 010 (After Julia Margaret Cameron, The Echo, 1868 (2021), from A selection of white people’s expressions from the great period of realism organised into a grid and positioned in such a way that they can smell a lemon. Photographs on archival paper, walnut frame © Daniel C. Blight

4-Daniel C. Blight, nug (2021), from Image Reconstructions. Photographs on archival paper, walnut frame © Daniel C. Blight

5-LP cover of Autechre, Incunabula (1993) © Warp Records

The Image of Whiteness:

Contemporary Photography and Racialization

Book review by Paul Halliday

We live in strange times. Recently, a senior British politician thought it acceptable to describe Muslim women wearing burkas as looking “like letterboxes”; this, after having previously described Black people as “Piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and gay men as “tank-topped bumboys”. It is quite possible that such overtly, Islamophobic, racist and homophobic utterances would have been considered unremarkable, had it not been that the speaker eventually became the British Prime Minister. All this, at a time of national crisis, the likes of which has not been seen during the post-war period. As Boris Johnson moved closer to seizing the reigns of parliamentary power, the more horrified the British Left became, as if watching a slow-motion car crash unfolding on a dimly lit CCTV screen, without any possibility of switching to pause or rewind.

On reading The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, edited by Daniel C. Blight, one is immediately struck by the complexities around some of the contemporary uncertainties associated with the inexorable rise of alt-right identity politics and the sociological space of an imagined future. This book invites us to reconsider the normalcy of the now, set against a future that may materialise through the Baldwin-esque fire of engaged memory, truth-making, agency and utopianism. Many of the writers are concerned with the historical optics of concealment and revelation, and this has particular resonances for those artists and cultural thinkers working in the difficult and shape-shifting area of ‘race studies’.

The book is effectively a series of conversations about the crisis of being; of making sense of being, and of being made sense of. On the cover, we see a photograph of what appears to be a white middle-class family surrounded by the accoutrements of a consistent, effortlessly maintained comfort. In this group portrait, there are no apparent signs of austerity impacting on the sitters as we so often see within the lives of families living at the edge; the so-called ‘left behind’. The book starts with an engaging and insightful introductory essay by Blight outlining some of the core thematic and theoretical concerns of a wide range of interdisciplinary writers and cultural commentators approaching ‘race’ from a variety of critical perspectives.

In Blight’s chapter, he outlines his central thesis that the very discussion (or the absence of discussion) of ‘whiteness’ is predicated on two primary responses; the first being White Denial ‘in which certain white people won’t acknowledge whiteness at all, it being more conspiracy than concept to them, a mere apparition.’ He contrasts this with a second response, which he intriguingly terms Relative White Silence. Having worked in British Higher Education for well over two decades, this resonates with me, both in terms of my actual experiences of just how difficult it can be to have conversations with some academic colleagues utterly convinced of the rightness (moral or other) of their ideological positions around institutional cultures that promote structural inequality ‘because’, as Blight puts it, ‘white people can never be truly silent, finding it necessary to recapitulate their subjectivity at every turn – a form of taciturn behavior in which they simply won’t engage either positively or negatively, preferring to be silent so as to remain “moderate”.’

Therein lies one of the central questions all of the contributors respond to, namely, how does ‘society’ make sense of difference and acknowledge the relationships that exist in real concrete terms for people of colour? Relatedly, how might ‘whiteness’ itself be seen beyond the epidermal surface? This book doesn’t attempt to answer what whiteness is exactly; how could it and why should it? Instead, it focuses on the implicit tensions of denial and silence; of hidden power relations not spoken of, or indeed spoken to. Through a well-considered image edit and thoughtfully designed layout, an extended conversational encounter is played out. There are portraits by Buck Ellison of young white people in a variety of natural settings; an interior-designed sitting room, a verdant meadow, a gymnast balanced atop an American Civil War-era light field artillery piece. Elsewhere, Ken Gonzales-Day offers images of a lynching of an absent African American in the Deep South. Absent, because the artist has removed the mutilated and twisted body of the victim; but what still remains is the delighted, carnivalesque faces of those witnessing and contributing to the ritualised murder that underpinned the true relationship between Jim Crow and a post-slavery society based on the racial terror that William DuBois, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Bell Hooks and Paul Gilroy have so eloquently written about.

There is a power and relevance in this, particularly for those researching and teaching photography and urbanism informed by social anthropology, socio-legal studies, cultural archaeology and art history. What excites me about this book is that it speaks to the conceptual foundation of interdisciplinarity, namely, that meaningful philosophical and epistemological insights may be found through practices working through ideas, pushing boundaries and being prepared to take risks. And there’s the rub. Interdisciplinarity, by it’s very nature is risky. It flies in the face of Bourdieusian Habitus in terms of its lack of ontological centeredness. As one works through this book, there is a strong sense of an indefatigable de-centering; of narratives around ‘race’ folding back, of then recapitulating within a written component, an interview, a visual element.

So we see in Nancy Burson’s images of Donald Trump, an all-seeing, all-powerful, assured white man comfortable within his own skin, transitioning through a series of colour shades and putative ‘races’, not entirely dissimilar to the colour classification system used to distinguish ‘true whites’ from ‘mulattos’ through to the outer edges of dark-skinned ‘negritude’. Suddenly Trump inhabits a different space, there, but not fully there. And of course, suffice to say, this continuum is arbitrary, relative, constructed, contested and imposed. Even now, decades after the big battles in social, cognitive and evolutionary anthropology have moved on from the conceptual prevarications and self-indulgences of experimentally and methodologically-challenged ‘race science’, there are the rumblings of a new awakening in eugenics research that promotes itself as dispassionate, objective, impartial, truthful and above all, ‘good for us.’

The white woman stands in front of a group of squatting Africans as seen in Michelle Dizon & Viet Le’s White Gaze. Education; it’s good for them. A Black man stands against a dark background draped with a Union flag in Abdul Abdullah’s, Self-portrait as an Ultra-nationalist, from the series Homeland. On his shirt is the legend “Fuck Off We’re Full”. Abdullah’s photograph confronts the white viewer with an image of difference that functions less as an experience of looking at or looking into a void; but rather challenges the viewer to think about the Black man as a projected mirror image drawing on a paradoxical innermost terror.

The conversations with David Roediger (The Advent of Whiteness), Yasmin Gunaratnam (The Borders of Whiteness), Claudia Rankine (On Blondness and Whiteness), Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (Picturing the Invisible) and George Yancy (Symbolic White Death), are focused, philosophically rich and well-crafted explorations of what ‘race’ today means within academia, literature, art-making and curatorial practices. As such, this book will be highly relevant to those readers engaging with some of the core issues surrounding such a complex, controversial and, at times, incendiary field. On reading the texts, one senses a real and present urgency, and the conversations, whilst not offering any easy ‘answers’ to some of the most pressing cultural, historical and geo-political issues of the day; often point to the possibility of mediation, conciliation and engagement, contrasting with stark warnings about the sharp shift to the outer edges of nationalist extremism.

There is a telling moment where Blight, in his final conversation with George Yancy, recalls a question he had previously asked the philosopher, “what should white people do?”, to which Yancy responded: “Lay down and die. White people should die a symbolic death.” There is so much confusion, invective and entrenchment around how best to approach the issues of ‘white privilege’, ‘white fragility’, institutional denial, silence and complicity; and it does feel that this timely book will make a contribution towards engaging and bringing into sharper focus a much-needed paradigm shift around addressing ‘whiteness’, ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ as constituent parts of our mundane, and often unremarkable lives. On reflection, I would suggest that rather than “lay down and die”, white people might consider doing something altogether more radical; they could engage differently with the history and cultural politics; they could reject denial, silence and complicity; they could stand up and live.

All images courtesy Self Publish, Be Happy Editions and Art on the Underground.


Paul Halliday is a photographer, filmmaker and urbanist based at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA Photography and Urban Cultures. After training in photojournalism and Fine Art film at LCC and Central St Martins, he studied social anthropology, art history and archaeology at Goldsmiths, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A member of UPA – the Urban Photographers’ Association, a former Channel 4 film director and British Refugee Council Media Advisor, he now researches urban spaces, identities and material cultures through visual and written forms.

I-Broomberg & Chanarin, Shirley 1, from the series How to Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, 2012. Courtesy the artists and Lisson Gallery, London and New York.

II-Nate Lewis, Focused Heads, from the series Social Patterns, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

III-Ken Gonzales-Day, East First Street #2 (St. James Park), from the series Erased Lynchings, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

IV-Nancy Burson, What If He Were: Asian, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

V-Nancy Burson, What If He Were: Black, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

VI-John Lucas & Claudia Rankine, Stamped, 2018. Courtesy the artists.

VII-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mirror Study (2140278), 2018. Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.), New York; DOCUMENT, Chicago; and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles.

VIII-Michelle Dizon & Viet Le, White Gaze (book spread), 2018. Courtesy the artists and Sming Sming Books.

IX-David Birkin, Detail (Death Row Gate), from the series Midnight Blue, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

X-Richard Misrach, Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona, from the series Border Cantos, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

XI-Libita Clayton, Untitled, from the series Quantum Ghost, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

XII-Libita Clayton, Untitled, from the series Quantum Ghost, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

XIII-Sutupa Biswas, Birdsong, 2004. Production still. 16mm lm transferred onto 2 DVDs. Dual-screen projection. Colour. No sound. Duration: 7’7”. Dimensions: variable. Commissioned by Iniva (London, UK) in collaboration with FVU (London, UK). Realised with the generous support of the AHRC (UK) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (UAL). Courtesy the artist.

Buck Ellison

Perfect White Family

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

Picture this if you can. The obsequious glow of white skin, in your house, at your work, in your mirror. If you “don’t see race”, see it now. See the thing you were taught to ignore. This signifier — this sallow epidermis — is what renders you invisible. Without your conscious permission, it places you at the unseen centre of what it is to be human. The ‘unmarked nature of whiteness derives from it being the centre point from which everything else can be viewed’, writes Steve Garner in his Whiteness as a kind of absence.[i]

White people are ghosts, invisible to themselves.

Photography is the social and technological history of “seeing white”. It finds its origins in the long 19th century and is often framed as a miraculous invention pioneered by the polymathic glow of elite European men. Sir William Henry Fox Talbot, the imperious Knight of the British Empire. Nicéphore Niépce, the son of a wealthy French lawyer. Photography then rapidly becomes the visual tool of European Imperialism — power, war, continued colonisation. At first, wealthy white men set out to photograph the world around them; “dark” things they find outside the centre of whiteness. White skin commands the signification of purity at home and black and brown “natives” form the subjugated portrait of the Grand Tour abroad.

Google Image search “family portrait”. The algorithm offers us a picture of white familial normativity. Perfect teeth, rose-tinted skin, wavy locks of hair. Race is also a question of class, of course. The same algorithm delivers us a picture of wealth: three of the first ten images in the search return a photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their two young children. Immaculate teeth, snow white skin — human “perfection”. Where does this image come from, why does it appear so avaricious and white, and what happens if we turn it against itself?

Buck Ellison flips the antipathy of such an image on its side. His “perfect” family is an image of acknowledgement; one that references a history of art bound to white, upper-class familial representations, from Dutch Golden Age painting to contemporary photographs of monied elites. But it is also an image of critique; one which captures the currency of financial aspiration and success in the present-day West. The psychology of wealth-making underpins our consumerist drives to accrue money and the sense of power and independence that often comes with it. As a recent research paper, The Psychology of Wealth[ii] notes, ‘Individuals endorsing the beliefs that self-worth and net worth are intertwined, that success is defined by how much money they earn, and that money helps give their life meaning were more likely to have attained a high-income level.’ In short, if you believe you are a high-value person in social terms — if you are able to perform that kind of vanity — you stand more chance of earning highly, so the story goes. One might pose the question here: what is the relation between narcissism, wealth and cultural traits associated with the social construction of whiteness?

In a period of ludicrous economic inequality, the photographic representation of this type of domestic space provides a seldom-granted look in to a 1% culture which owns 90% of American dollars. Ellison visually documents this space, and at the same time renders it artifice, fiction. As Gillian Rose writes, domestic space is ‘connected to the public space of political, economic and cultural relations’[iii] and we might therefore interpret it as a space that is constructed. While reflecting a social class that is very real indeed, the subjects of Ellison’s photographs nonetheless perform their identities, assembling the meaning of the space around them. How might this function, as an image?

One of Ellison’s visual references is 17th century Dutch painting. As Martha Hollander notes in her An Entrance for the Eyes[iv], Dutch painters designed a complex and thoughtful series of signifiers into their images which in equal parts documented and allegorised the lives of the subjects featured. Ellison has made a series of photographs that work similarly to reveal various tropes and details. An American war of Independence drill manual, a First World War cannon, a diamond engagement ring, a phone call made or taken in the Ritz-Carlton.

The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, is a semi-formal group portrait. The photograph gives us a number of venerably posh signifiers: flowery upholstered furniture (good taste); a large, welcoming fireplace lined with parquet woodwork (a warm and wholesome environment); plenty of pictures and books (knowledge is power); the boy wears his polo-neck tucked-in (smart, well bred) and the girls sit or stand in plaid skirts and knee-high hosiery (European cultural heritage, check). This type of family photography, as French writer Jean Sagne notes,

puts in place a system of signs, which translate
into the image of a class…. The conformity to
the model, the constraint imposed on the individual
to bend to [certain] rules can but translate into
a voluntary assimilation, a recognition of a social code.[v]

I cannot claim to know these people, but I am socialised to recognise the image they project for I have come to unconsciously desire it myself. As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks shows in her Desiring Whiteness,[vi] whiteness is the ‘master signifier’ to which all other racial categories must be submitted. White people are thus lured towards it; our lives lived in a state of flux between ignorance of what we are and a certain crisis of knowing, somehow, that we are living in a state of denial; a refusal to give up that chimerical promise that was offered to us, for nothing, at birth. It is not our skin that makes us white, but rather the way we act upon the world. As Cheryl Harris has shown[vii], whiteness was in part devised as a system of property ownership, and it is with the notions of property, assets and profit that white people continue to be obsessed. In this respect, whiteness is capitalism, and we barely know it.

Photography complicates questions of race and class considerably. As a medium shifting between documentary and fiction, it both reaffirms the dynamics of social, political and economic power and at the same time places them out of reach. Ellison’s pictures are enigmatic in the way that they both “image” and “imagine” a certain kind of reality. To look at the family group is, as Philip Stokes writes, ‘to add the assumption of a whole thicket of connections between the sitters; most viewers allow themselves the pleasure of extravagant supposition.’[viii] We, as viewers, do not know who these people are, but we can suppose who they remind us of, if not directly ourselves.

All images courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter, London. © Buck Ellison


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Historical & Critical Studies in Photography, School of Media, University of Brighton and Visiting Tutor, Critical & Historical Studies, School of Arts & Humanities, Royal College of Art. His first book, The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization is forthcoming from SPBH Editions co-published with Art on the Underground.

References:

[i] Garner, S. (2007), “Whiteness as a kind of absence” in Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

[ii] Klontz, B.T., Seay, M.C., Sullivan, P. and Canale, A. (2014), The Psychology of Wealth: Psychological Factors Associated with High Income. Journal of Financial Planning, 27:12. Denver: Financial Planning Association.

[iii] Rose, G. (2003), Family photographs and domestic spacings: a case study. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. London: Royal Geographical Society.

[iv] Hollander, M. (2002). An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in 17th Century Dutch Art. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[v] Sagne, J. (1984), L’atelier du photographe. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance.

[vi] Seshadri-Crooks, K. (2000). Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. London: Routledge.

[vii] Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106:8. Cambridge: The Harvard Law Review Association.

[viii] Stokes, P. (1992), “The Family Photograph Album: So Great a Cloud of Witnesses” in Clarke, C. The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion.