For someone who thinks a lot about photography, I have decidedly mixed feelings about being seen. In Canada, where I grew up and once again live, the state’s term for non-Indigenous racialized people like me is “visible minority.” The hypervisibility of racialization often confers a kind of invisibility, however. As a cis scholar of mixed Chinese descent, I am persistently misrecognized by other members of the institutions through which I move, mistaken for a student, staff member, a different Asian woman.
I first encountered Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) at a conference on modernism and comedy. While her performance style is not exactly comical, the Baroness is most notable for her eccentric writing and elaborate costumes, despite the fact that her title brought her no monetary stability. Born in Germany, she immigrated to the US with a husband who soon abandoned her, she married the Baron (her third husband) who soon died, and she made her way to the Greenwich Village art scene as a figure model, poet, and sculptor in 1913.
In the urgency of what sounds initially like an auteur’s command, the fictional “Director” of Adrienne Kennedy’s 1973 play-within-a-play, An Evening with Dead Essex, discloses the unnegotiable terms of his own captivity before the phantasmal image.
It is in the frequent repetition of a one-word imperative from the Director—to “flash”—that its operational binding (as the instruction by which to advance photographic images in a slide projector) can be perceived to shred. The demand is at once a managerial spur for his actors to make headway in grasping their subject matter, and an abyssal first step in the momentum of the collective going-under necessitated by its deepest realization.
A creature luminous and vexed, the firefly flits in melancholic briefness, brilliant yet burning out, its light’s little lifespan mocked by the starry fixtures of the sky. The firefly’s illumination is a chemical process, like the flash of a camera but without the photograph’s sense of permanence and history. Instead, summer by summer, children chase down these natural lanterns and collect them in mason jars, glass enclosures for viewing their darkening demise. Aquariums of lost energy.
1959: The Atlantic magazine devotes its April issue to “Africa South of the Sahara.” Articles on the politics of decolonization frame a large number of contributions on art and culture. A short story by Chinua Achebe appears alongside the work of Nadine Gordimer, Tom Mboya, Léon Damas, Léopold Sédar-Senghor, Amos Tutuola, and David Diop. “The Sacrificial Egg” is Achebe’s first story published in the United States, and its timing supports the US release of his novel Things Fall Apart. Unlike that classic novel, the story begins in a recognizably modern Nigeria, with a young clerk named Julius Obi sitting alone in a colonial shipping office, gazing at his typewriter.
In 1888, the George Eastman Company put the first film-roll camera on the market. The new “Kodak” put photographic practice into the hands of many amateurs and hobbyists for the first time. This camera had immediate cultural effect, shaping how people saw and recorded things—even when they didn’t have a Kodak with them. In 1890, for example, the American journalist Nellie Bly had few regrets about her record-breaking trip around the world, except that in her “hasty departure [she] forgot to take a Kodak.”
When I first saw this image on the National Gallery of Australia’s website, I wasn’t quite sure who, or what, I was seeing (fig. 1). What is the shadowy form lurking in the bottom-left-hand-corner of the image? Is it a person emerging out of the basement, a playful photographic superimposition, or something more banal: just another painting propped in the corner?
In 1927, Ansel Adams, Albert Bender, and Bertha Damon drove through the US-Mexico borderlands. While Bender was already a prominent patron of the arts, and while Damon was already an established environmental writer, Adams was at a creative crossroads.
In 1923 Alfred Stieglitz published “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” a short essay in which he writes:
I always watched clouds. Studied them. . . . So I began to work with the clouds—and it was with great excitement . . . Every time I developed I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after—but had failed. A most tantalizing sequence of days and weeks.
This “tantalizing sequence” of initial experimentation would later yield a formidable legacy, as Stieglitz would spend nearly a decade (1923–31) producing the pivotal series of cloud photographs he would title the Equivalents. During this period he printed and exhibited hundreds of cloud images, most taken during the summers he spent with Georgia O’Keeffe at Lake George, in the Adirondacks. When Stieglitz turned his camera to the skies in the early 1920s, the resulting photographs sometimes included a sliver of horizon or the silhouette of a tree, inclusions which hold the vastness of the cloudscape in relative perspective against the scale of the earth. Yet by the late 1920s, most visual references to solid ground disappear from the work, seeming to set the clouds adrift within their frames. Free of mooring, their spatial proportions and positioning indeterminate, the cloud images become disoriented from any authoritative vantage: their shapes and textures may imply certain atmospheric vectors or conditions, but no single beholder’s grounded point of view definitively calibrates them (fig. 1).
By the mid-1930s, the literary works of the aging Russian naturalist author Mikhail Prishvin abounded in the Soviet press, from children’s books to literary journals. But despite a long list of publications, the author has been relegated to a secondary position in the Soviet literary canon. It has only been with the recent publication of his vast and detailed diaries that Prishvin’s authorial persona has sparked growing scholarship and interest. And it was not until December 2015 that viewers were able to see the first exhibition of his equally meticulous and remarkable photographs.