Cover image for Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor By Tanya Sheehan

Study in Black and White

Photography, Race, Humor

Tanya Sheehan


$62.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08110-6

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08111-3

Available as an e-book

216 pages
8.5" × 9.5"
80 color/12 b&w illustrations

Study in Black and White

Photography, Race, Humor

Tanya Sheehan

“Working at the intersection of race, humor, and photography studies, this important new book supplies a new lens through which to view all of these disciplines. Tanya Sheehan has taken the field of racialized humor in an original direction through a rigorous and nuanced examination of the impact of photography upon visual humor from the nineteenth century to the present. Particularly fascinating is Sheehan’s consideration of camera comedy and the minstrel stage, both in America and abroad. Eminently readable, Study in Black and White is both appealing and illuminating.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In this volume, Tanya Sheehan takes humor seriously in order to trace how photographic comedy was used in America and transnationally to express evolving ideas about race, black emancipation, and civil rights in the mid-1800s and into the twentieth century.

Sheehan employs a trove of understudied materials to write a new history of photography, one that encompasses the rise of the commercial portrait studio in the 1840s, the popularization of amateur photography around 1900, and the mass circulation of postcards and other photographic ephemera in the twentieth century. She examines the racial politics that shaped some of the most essential elements of the medium, from the negative-positive process to the convention of the photographic smile. The book also places historical discourses in relation to contemporary art that critiques racism through humor, including the work of Genevieve Grieves, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.

By treating racial humor about and within the photographic medium as complex social commentary, rather than a collectible curiosity, Study in Black and White enriches our understanding of photography in popular culture. Transhistorical and interdisciplinary, this book will be of vital interest to scholars of art history and visual studies, critical race studies, U.S. history, and African American studies.

“Working at the intersection of race, humor, and photography studies, this important new book supplies a new lens through which to view all of these disciplines. Tanya Sheehan has taken the field of racialized humor in an original direction through a rigorous and nuanced examination of the impact of photography upon visual humor from the nineteenth century to the present. Particularly fascinating is Sheehan’s consideration of camera comedy and the minstrel stage, both in America and abroad. Eminently readable, Study in Black and White is both appealing and illuminating.”
“Readers of American art and visual culture interested in critical race studies, transnational exchange, and the movement of ideas between media, particularly performance and visual art, will benefit from Sheehan’s historically grounded and convincing accounts that offer new perspectives on US racial discourse within and through photography.”
“A remarkable reflection on photography and performance in cultural history. By reexamining humor and questioning popular images that demoralized and uplifted the black portrait in early photography, Tanya Sheehan introduces her unease as a reader of such imagery while interweaving the scholar’s critical eye on representations of black people globally and over time. Brilliant and pioneering!”
“Ubiquitous and often insidious, racial humor is a pervasive form of American cultural expression. Tanya Sheehan’s insightful and well-researched Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor moves beyond the laughs to examine how humor in the photographic medium has been employed and deployed as an agent, a conduit, and a dog whistle in America’s complex negotiation of race and representation.”
“Sheehan’s account of race, humor, and commercial photography warrants an attentive hearing from researchers and teachers who are seeking to understand the politics of race as it unfolds on the streets and in social media—in years past and in the days to come.”
“This book about humor is not funny. But its account of cruel, dehumanizing caricatures sheds light on the infiltration of racism into some of the most basic and mundane sectors of the history of—mainly—the United States. Moreover, the reproduction of these caricatures in the context of literature about photography or in photographs gives them an insidious power with consequences for the myth of photographic truth.”

Tanya Sheehan is William R. Kenan Jr. Associate Professor of Art at Colby College. She is the author of Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, also published by Penn State University Press.


List of IllustrationsAcknowledgmentsIntroduction1. Strange Effects and Photographic Pleasures: Race, Science, and Early Photography2. The Darkey Photographer: Camera Comedy and the Minstrel Stage3. Look Pleasant, Please! A Social History of the Photographic Smile4. Writing the Self Through Others: Racial Humor and the Photographic Postcard5. Revival and Subversion: Snapshot Performances from Kodak to Kara WalkerNotesSelected BibliographyIndex

From the Introduction

Around 1900, the Universal Photo Art Company of Philadelphia published a stereocard titled A Study in Black and White (fig. 1). Looking through the binocular eyepiece of a stereoscope, middle-class Americans, who consumed stereocards in great numbers at the turn of the twentieth century, would have experienced a familiar joke in threedimensions. In the nearly identical photographs on the card are two black babies, diapered in white cloth and seated in an expanse of white cotton on a southern plantation. Sitting upright, the slightly older boy grasps the white fluff in his chubby hands as he turns to look at his companion. Arms in motion, eyes closed, and mouth parting, as if midcry, the younger child appears to object to his current circumstances. The white viewers whom the Universal Photo Art Company aimed to entertain were encouraged to disregard the child’s distress, the inexplicable absence of the babies’ parents, and the oddity of the scene as a whole. To laugh with the photograph was to focus instead on the play of opposites signaled by its title—namely, the blackness of the babies juxtaposed with the whiteness of the cotton. What, for the card’s viewers, could have been more opposite than the values black and white at a time when blackness connoted filth and ugliness, darkness and disorder, evil and sin, disease and death—everything that whiteness was not? Humorous to them, too, would have been the application of a refined aesthetic term (a study) to the coupling of African Americans with a commodity signifying their enslavement and backbreaking labor in the southern states. And yet that juxtaposition would also have been experienced as logical and pleasing, if one believed that blacks were essentially suited to—or born into, as the babies on the stereocard suggest—an inferior social status. What was incongruous in one respect about bringing blackness and whiteness into intimate relation was thus imagined as quite natural and expected in another.That photography itself relied on a contrast of black and white added another layer to the card’s humor. Since most photographic processes depended on light’s stimulation of silver nitrate to darken, or blacken, the white ground of a photosensitive surface, the medium served as a ready metaphor for racial difference and the ground upon which many jokes about race were laid. Its potential to embody contemporary social relations thus informed much more than the production of the stereocard; it generated a robust genre of racial humor that emerged with the earliest public discussions of photography around 1839 and remained popular into the twentieth century. Exploring the connections that this genre forged between photography and race in America, this book asks how and why humorists used the medium to express evolving ideas about blackness and whiteness.Since the 1970s, interest in early photographic humor among historians and collectors has led to publications cataloguing its many varieties in Europe and the United States. Compilations of jokes about photography—in graphic satire, popular literature, and comic photographs—show how humorists poked fun at the huge number of people who flocked to commercial portrait studios or took up amateur photography. Presenting them as evidence of photography’s mass popularity since the mid-nineteenth century, these studies uncovered countless examples of humor that pointed to the unnaturalness of photographic poses, the ridiculous efforts to capture a pleasing likeness, and the absurd ubiquity of the camera. While collecting together many varieties of photographic humor from public and extensive private collections, the aim of this book far exceeds that of accumulation. The central interest of the following chapters lies in reconnecting racial comedy to historical questions not only about the technology of photography but also about racialized subjectivity, agency, and citizenship—questions that resonate with social concerns in the twenty-first century.By approaching photographic humor as more than a collectible curiosity or “mere” entertainment, Study in Black and White contributes to recent efforts in American studies and art history to take visual humor seriously and treat it as complex social commentary. I share the view, now established in these fields, that the “study of humor becomes yet another way of understanding social history, cultural institutions, and the development of both a sense of national identity and threats to that identity.” This is not to say that scholars should take humor’s cultural status for granted; rather, we should think carefully about how humor has been constituted within cultures and how its status has changed over time. We must ask, as historian Daniel Wickberg puts it, “how humor was talked about in culture, what values were attached to it, [and] how it was structured and produced.” This approach adopts a key aspect of French philosopher Henri Bergson’s influential theory of humor, first published in 1900. “To understand laughter,” Bergson proposed, “we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one.” Laughter, in Bergson’s view, “must have a social signification.”

Studies of racial and ethnic humor have been sympathetic to Bergson’s claim that laughter signals an individual’s desire to belong to a social group and to relieve social tensions, sometimes by ironically reenacting them. Such studies have also incorporated aspects of the superiority theory of humor, which emerged from the writings of Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes. As Joseph Boskin and Joseph Dorinson note in their often-cited study of ethnic humor, “Hobbes related laughter to power and traced the origins and purposes of laughter to social rivalry.” He therefore would have understood the ethnic stereotype as aggressively proclaiming the “eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others.” Similarly, many of the examples of photographic humor considered in Study in Black and White stem from white Americans’ wished-for social superiority in the face of black emancipation, waves of immigration, and further efforts to bring “others” into the national body. But as Boskin and Dorinson observe, a joke cannot always be explained simply as a form of aggression—as a self resisting the perceived threat of an other. It can conceal or mask feelings that are unconscious or unsafe to express directly, or it can affirm an ethnic group’s identity and express collective pride. In African American humor specifically, there is a long tradition of embracing role reversals, pointing to the absurdity of situations or subjects, and revealing the gap between appearance and reality. Among the social functions these comic gestures have served since the mid-nineteenth century are “group survival, escape into pride and dignity, self-criticism, and the resolution of conflict.”

Examining ideas about race in photographic humor exposes the need for robust and nimble theories to describe their motivations, strategies, and effects. Addressing this need most productively and inventively, in my view, has been the prolific writing since the 1990s on blackface minstrelsy. In analyzing this theatrical performance of black caricature popularized in the 1830s, scholars have demonstrated an ability to see it as accomplishing many things at once: collapsing artifice and authenticity, degrading and envying black bodies, fearing and desiring others, blacking up and becoming white. Led by the scholarship of Eric Lott, they have found ways of accounting for the ambiguities and contradictions in blackface performances, staged by both white and black actors, while attending to their social as well as psychic dimensions. For these reasons, the history and historiography of minstrelsy runs through my consideration of photographic humor’s appropriation of black stereotypes and other comic racial performances. I have also incorporated social theories of affect, particularly recent work in the field of happiness studies and literature on race and melancholy. While minstrelsy provides valuable models for understanding how and why comic tropes invest in certain raced subjects feeling and looking joyful, affect theory offers insights into the simultaneous rejection of and clinging to racial others that have motivated minstrel and photographic humor alike.Study in Black and White has been further shaped by a recent shift in studies of blackface, from a treatment of minstrelsy as a distinctively American form of humor best approached in national terms to a global phenomenon with a variety of cultural meanings. Motivating this shift are two decades of vigorous reflection on what it means to construct geographically, culturally, and conceptually expansive American histories. Associated with historians Donald E. Pease, Thomas Bender, and many others, this work has encouraged the study of objects, peoples, and ideas across the Americas, the Atlantic, and the Pacific world. And so when I speak of the humor that linked photography and race in America, I recognize these terms as having been constructed transnationally, through the circulation of racial humor within and beyond the borders of the United States and through its participation in local and global networks. The opening chapters of this book therefore ask: How did the American exportation of photographic humor interact with racial discourses in Britain and parts of the British Empire? In what ways did different geographic and social contexts shape the meanings of popular American images and ideas about race?Readers of Study in Black and White will note, however, that many of the materials I have selected for discussion originated in a relatively limited geographical area—specifically, the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and midwestern United States. This is because a significant number of the historical producers of photographic humor were located in major cities in these regions, notably Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit. These same producers allow us to talk about the national character of the genre, for the publishers of comic magazines and books, trade journals, stereocards, and postcards, some of whom also distributed photographic technology and supplies, cultivated large markets. Circulating widely, their humor had the potential to transcend local and regional references and present itself as a national discourse that constituted a shared cultural imagination for the middle-class whites it targeted. We will pay close attention to important exceptions.In addition to the national and transnational dimensions of photographic humor, this book is concerned with the circulation of comic images and tropes across time and media. The stereocard with which this introduction began is an excellent example of the mass reproduction and dissemination of a particular comic trope, for it belonged to a vast collection of stereocards, postcards, and other staged photographs that placed black children in a sea of cotton and remained popular in the United States for more than a century (fig. 2). Through its caption, figure 1 also participated in comic and sentimental genres that included photography as well as print satire, musical scores, children’s literature, commercial trade cards, and much more. In the early twentieth century, for example, the phrase “A Study in Black and White” was used to describe everything from photographs of white missionaries posing with the dark-complexioned Pacific peoples they hoped to “civilize” to a popular American song that featured a black boy who dreams of turning white in heaven (fig. 3). This book therefore approaches objects like figure 1 as part of an expansive visual culture that acquired meaning through conversations across media, while remaining attentive to the formal and conceptual particularities of any one example of photographic humor.

Study in Black and White addresses the multiple contexts in which such humor functioned by considering multiple audiences and what they were encouraged to find funny. Much of the book focuses on the consumption of racial humor by subjects who saw themselves as white and bourgeois. The objects I describe as “comic” were amusing to this audience, not to this author or her intended readers. I also consider the appropriation of these images and their subversion by black image makers, who have attempted to bridge creatively the perceived divide between blacks and whites. Indeed, the work of late twentieth-century and twenty-first-century black artists offers an invaluable critical framework through which to analyze conceptions of race and racial difference in early photographic humor. Often communicating through the language of caustic wit and ironic appropriation, their art renders photography and its historical operators the object of a radically new and socially progressive joke.(Excerpt ends here.)