The Signs of Race in the Language of Photography

Elizabeth Abel

in Signs of the Times

Published by University of California Press

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780520261174
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520945869 | DOI:
The Signs of Race in the Language of Photography

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This chapter turns to photographic modes of reproduction and from historical to theoretical accounts of photography's role in the construction of racial meaning. It examines the verbal strategies through which Jim Crow signs recruited the authority of the logos to add race to the divisions of the social universe. It highlights the work of African American photographers and invokes Charles Sanders Peirce's differentiation among iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs to question photography's role as the iconic complement to logos. Despite the photograph's (iconic) resemblance to the things it represents, the camera registers traces (indices) of things that disrupt our mental image of the world. The reading of photography's symbolic signs draws by contrast from Roland Barthes, tweaked against his inclination to associate what he calls the rhetoric of the image with the dominant ideology. The chapter concludes by turning to the 2000 exhibition “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present,” a massive retrospective of black photography.

Keywords: Jim Crow signs; photography; racial meaning; logos; race; African American photographers; Charles Sanders Peirce; symbolic signs; Roland Barthes; exhibition

Chapter.  16646 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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