/ “To Glorify the Negro”: Photographic Shock and Blackness in Carl Van Vechten's Portraiture

Dorothy Stringer

in Not Even Past

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780823231478
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780823241088 | DOI:

Series: American Literatures Initiative

/ “To Glorify the Negro”: Photographic Shock and Blackness in Carl Van Vechten's Portraiture

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Photography, for important modern and contemporary cultural theorists, is strongly associated with psychological shock. Benjamin's theoretical account of photography, therefore, directly analogizes photographic criticism to psychoanalysis, suggesting that photographs reveal an “optical unconscious” to the attentive viewer. Van Vechten's portraits integrally relate the “political meaning of shock effects” to the interpenetration of psychic trauma and public identification in the portrait genre. Portraiture represents a particularly rich ground for “becoming unintelligible,” since the genre conventionally equates the representation to the person's social existence. Gertrude Stein recognized as much when she dedicated her 1934 collection Portraits and Prayers to Van Vechten. Photographic fetishism often had a specific engagement with racial blackness. Photographic shock in his work is neither an objective trace of reality.

Keywords: photography; psychic trauma; Carl Van Vechten; portraiture; Gertrude Stein; shock; fetishism; blackness

Chapter.  8881 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literature

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