From the bottom of a vertiginous void, across unmet distance,
these photographs come to me: sealed single echoes.
Standing in a bookstore, leafing
through the book The Masculine Masquerade,1 I open the pages of Glenn
Ligon's photo essay "A Feast of Scraps". Spread out, as if sharing
the pages of an album, the photos produce telling juxtapositions.
Someone's mementos: family photos, erotic "naughty" snapshots
from the subcultural gay '70s: all photos of black people: some,
of the bodily exhibition of black men. In seemingly mutually
exclusive ways, these photos share the talismanic effects specific
to photographic representations. Enshrining such different and, more
importantly, discrete elements of life, can all these
photos belong to the same person? Can they all be claimed in
the same ways?
I feel embarrassed looking at these pictures.
What do I, a white boy, find in the cracked black-and-white
prints of birthday parties, mothers or sisters dressed up for
special occasions, groups of friends posing for memory's sake?
These photos belong to someone else. The implication of my glance
meeting a luscious dick and a sly, inviting smile is more clear.
But Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" forces the question: Can
it be denied that the same fetishes of the loved one are present
in each photo, whether of parent, sibling, past lover, friend,
or even one the beholder has never touched, never met? Despite
the simultaneous injunction against and compulsion to visual
representation this assemblage of images invokes, what these
photographs contain, and what they assert, in however contingent
and fugitive a way, are the lives and loves of people otherwise
engulfed by the determining gaze of racism. These are lives that
are negated, though imaged, by the cultural imagination of race.
These moments of fugitive life are enshrined in "A Feast of Scraps"
precisely where the photographs capture, through their impersonal
mechanical and chemical processes, what is always absent in imagination:
an empirical residue of what undeniably existed, that which
has been. The unintentionally detached impressions of
bodies and faces are precisely never the ideal body, never
fully congruent with the racist idea of blackness
and this disparity increases with displacement in time and social
place. What can be recognized in each photograph is proof of
intractable existence, despite racism.
Photographs of black Americans might bear the wounds of
history more openly than others. In this way, photographic images can embody literal scars of history, in a society interested,
as ours is, in exorcising its guilty past as a way of denying
its shameful present. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, every artifact
of culture is an artifact of barbarism. Every record of black
life in America is a record of the impossibility of life
in a racist society. With each photograph coming
down to us through time comes, in its captivated contingency,
a reminder that this is an existence in danger of being revoked.
A photographic exposure, arrested in time, presents a precipitate of the historical process. The contingency of the photo becomes an analogue for the contingency
of the life. No further, extrinsic information of social-historical context is required. Awareness of this fateful contingency is borne by nothing other than the very fact of physical existence imprinted in the photograph, the physiognomic fact of blackness.2
Glenn Ligon's work is contextualized by other work by black (gay) artists, writers and critics addressing the erotic representation of black men in racist society. In the late 1980s Robert Mapplethorpe's
black male nudes became the site for a discussion of the implications
of erotic investments in what have been considered white constructions
of black men's bodies and sexualities. (Ligon's first photographic work was his contribution to the 1993 Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition, "Notes on the Margins of Robert Mapplethorpe's Black Book.") A "burden of representation"
is shouldered by any images of black people, members of a constructed
minority in a society continually engaged in the production of
"blackness" through pervasive, shifting and mutating typifications,
delimiting and accommodating the lives of people who must in
the first and last instance remain black.
Kobena Mercer introduced into
the discussion of such racialized photographic representation the ideas of ambivalence and split subjectivity,
the moment Mercer felt his own blackness to be imaged in the photograph
of another black man, sharing the exposure beneath the gaze of
the photograph, conflicting with the moment of desire for the
photographed subject, Mercer sharing the gaze of the photograph.3
The articulation of this ambivalence was necessary in order to discuss
Mercer's own investments in the imagery, and to rescue the lives
of the subjects of the photographs, rendered invisible by discussion
otherwise guided by Mapplethorpe's masterful "white gaze." Mercer
acknowledged a more complicated and implicated investment in
stereotypical representations among black viewers and artists
than the denunciation of Mapplethorpe's photos had allowed. In the one-page statement accompanying "A Feast of Scraps", Glenn Ligon writes that
To say that stereotypical images of black men are constructed
for white pleasure does not mean that the images have nothing
to say to black people and that we must throw them out. To do
so is not only to deny the ambivalence with which we look at
the images but to deny the lives of the men depicted.4
The compulsion to image black people as black
superimposes itself upon the practices of representing black
people in racist society. The changing historical accouterments
of black lives, displaced in time through the photograph, reflect
an existence stubbornly resisting racist determination, thus
revealing not only the historical contingency of race as a social
relation, but also the faces of contingent existence despite
and beyond racism. The apparent trans-historical existence of
race as a social relation is evinced by historical representations
of black people, showing the marks of racism across history.
However, as temporally contingent objects, photographs can also reveal
the intractable existence of black people across different historical
moments, despite the social relations of race. Ligon's "Feast of Scraps"
emphatically asserts the existence, in spite of the continuing
racist society, that surfaces in photographs of black people,
located in the viewer as a moment of longing and desire. The very collection
and juxtaposition of these "scraps" of life foregrounds
how photographs of black people capture historically contingent
determinations of racism, embedded in contingent life. In this
sense, these photos reveal less about the lives of the people depicted
than about photography. The totalizing determination of race
is thrown back upon the viewer as a lingering problem of identifying
"blackness" race as a moment of the perpetual present
of ideology in the lives of those photographed. Ligon
writes about the erotic snapshots in "A Feast of Scraps" that
The images are somehow familiar, like portraits of long-dead
relatives you never met but in whose faces you can trace the
contours of your own. I look closely and I begin to remember.5
There is a unique way meaning is made of photographs,
in the personal investments each viewer is invited to bring to
them. A photo presents the unidentifiable, cold. And it becomes
more inexhaustible the more one names it: Of the photo labeled
"Daddy" I am left wondering what is most memorable, what animates
its fetish-character for me. Is it the tremendous size of this
black man's penis, or his handlebar moustache and silly dress
of cowboy hat and soiled "streaker" overcoat, or the buckle-belt
around his naked waist, completing the inventory of father-figure
fetishes? Or is it his goofy but knowing smile, telling the viewer
that he's in on the joke of the photo? Is it his age (40s?)
and its marks on his body? Or is it the very questions asked
of the photo by its situation in "A Feast of Scraps": When and
under what conditions was this picture taken? Next to the family
photos: is this someone's "Daddy"? Is this man a porn "model"
or was this photo taken by someone the man knew a trick or boyfriend or domestic partner
for memory's sake? What quality of this photo made it meaningful
to the photographer and to its previous owner(s)? And to Ligon?
Of whom does this photo remind me, and in what ways?
Meaning occurs only where the viewer can incorporate
into the present that lost moment embodied by the photo, articulating
the severed parts of the subjectively conscious and the alien,
objectively extant given. Photographs of black people
in America can mark intrusions of recalcitrant history into the
meaning-making moment of the present. This is the paradox of
historical images of black Americans: if we cannot deny the existence
each so stubbornly asserts, then we must apprehend the images
emblematically, and fold their excesses back under the sensible
the racist. "Daddy" becomes a deflated figure indeed if
he's only a shameless nigger, guileless victim of racist exploitation
or otherwise exhibiting the perverse innocence taken for granted
by a certain racist imagination. On the other hand, the photos in "A Feast of Scraps"
from the Jim Crow era not conforming to safely banal Southern
pastoral "colored folks" ethnography affect the pathos of tragedy:
these ill-suited darkies are playing at whiteness. Only that
history required to authenticate the "black experience" is admitted.
The inconclusive and hence insoluble history
of America's class struggles it "weighs like a nightmare
on the brain of the living" (Marx),6 always threatening
to explode the society built on systematic degradation
flickers across the artifactual glyph of the photo, but is effaced
under the cipher of lingering color-caste consciousness.
In an exhibition titled
Photos & Notes,
Ligon presented several photographic installation works that
developed out of "A Feast of Scraps", this
time including Ligon's own personal family and childhood photos,
situating them among '70s-vintage working-class home furniture.
For example, the piece "Twin" consists of a trundle bed covered with porn magazines and videocassettes showing black, interracial and gay sex alongside a photo album and copies of popular magazines such as Jet (tucked under the bed is a sign of this childhood's future: a copy of the 1992 issue of Newsweek magazine with a cover photo of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was a contemporary of Ligon, both born in 1960). In such installations the residue of the past captured by the
photos evokes the literal detritus of the trash furniture. These
merge in the colors of the past shared by the yellowed Polaroids
and the garish "Afro"-style upholstery. The upholstery's synthetic
fibers and the striated plastic covers of old consumer prints
are caught in the amber of uncomfortable memory. There is a pang
for the way we used to live called up by the furniture,
clothes, hairstyles, the poses of a different time. There
is no nostalgia for a lost innocence, though there may be enough
reason for that, considering a black child's early baptism into
racism connoted by the baby pictures. We look back at our portraits,
and we fear for ourselves, vulnerable in that arrested earlier
moment of becoming. Ligon asks us to share with him that sense
of vulnerability in the viewing of his own childhood, situated
among the other pasts imagined in the photos. The contingency
of the photos presents a contingency of being, and the experience
of alienation from an earlier self. The past is appropriated, and the rupture repressed and resolved, through a continual process of self-identifying in the present. Time does not heal all wounds: rather,
the passage of time opens wounds between the present and the
past that can be recognized here and there in photographs.
But Ligon's textures of the past cannot evoke
the same memories for all viewers. For instance, Ligon's "Twin"
bed does not merely embody a totem of individuation, but points
to the lie of that self-identity.
The roll-away bed beneath its "twin" complicates the shrine to
self-hood, and complicates the identification process. The childhood
bed shared with the brother, as well as with the photos and magazines,
is a class indictment of the bourgeois ideology of discrete individuality.
There is the otherness of brotherhood, and the brotherhood
of representation, of shared blackness, doppelgängers both
in the flesh and in imagination. The "twin" asks the viewer to
recognize the loss of self in the other as a function of both
identity and desire, the process frozen in the tableau vivant
evoked by the doubled bed. The photos are they masturbatory
materials, to be rolled away and hidden from sight? stand
for the absent loved brother, the absent loved self. Equally
estranged from the brother of blackness as from the brother of
whiteness, Ligon shows both to be imbricated in the fragmented
self. This split love object mirroring a split subjectivity has
its analogue in the split bed. The two mattresses mirror each
other, one filling the emptiness of the other with a host of
reflected black male bodies. The bed is a powerful Lacanian mirror:
it holds one's self whole-ly. Ligon writes
in "A Feast of Scraps" that
the images of men were pressed up against me and against each
other; we were all in a jumble. I couldn't tell where my body
ended and another's began.7
The identity and representability of "blackness" in racist
society threatens to overwhelm the actual lives of black people.
In Black Skin, White Masks Frantz
Fanon discussed the ways the development of the self is crippled
by over-determining racist identification. Fanon's question remains:
how can an identity determined from without and, as such, constituted
as other to oneself blackness at the same time
remain autonomous and preserve its non-identical selfhood despite
that constitutive, other-ing self-alienation? This is the process
of identification that is objectified in Ligon's
"Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes. (And I
would oppose such critical objectification to the notion of a gesture of "difference within
difference," of being both "black" and "gay," that has been attributed
to Ligon's work.8
Do "blacks" not to say "gays" assert difference?)
Ligon's most widely known works are his post-abstract expressionistic paintings, ranging in scale from intimate easel-sized paintings to anthropomorphic door-sized paintings, in which Ligon used plastic stencils to render text on canvases, paper, or directly on walls (or doors). These paintings incorporate various texts on "race," from James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston to Jean Genet and Richard
Pryor. When not playing in the graphics of black and white, the paintings engage the haptic chromatic effects of color-field painting, as in works by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Ligon's word paintings embody a dialectic of two formal impulses: reducing
the appropriated texts to graphical artifacts, thus dissolving language; and,
conversely, enacting an ambiguous constitution of identity through
discourse and rhetoric. The stenciled words, serially repeated,
function to trace both the physical, bodily act of marking that
identifies the labor of the artist, and the externally constructed, given
social-material delineations of that marking and of that identity.
Through layered accretion, the avalanche of characters, and the
devolution of the repeated act, the muddying of the mark, the
constitutive delimitations are dissolved as such, leaving only
the mark of marking, having seemingly collapsed in upon itself.
The stenciled language, being constitutive, is impossible to opt out of.
One is confronted in these works with physical monuments to the
endlessly reiterated act, a Sisyphean task mimicking the whole
relentless social project of producing "race." In this abject
mimesis, the reifying mark ad nauseam of the self-reproducing
rhetoric of race, Ligon's work becomes a confrontation with and protest against that
inexorable process, ad absurdum. The
dream of a deracinated self, purged of race, negatively reflected
in the black pigment given endlessly to the white surface, becomes
a nightmare of perpetual damnation.9 This is the purgatory of
the abandoned social project of overthrowing "race," reduced
to the individual vibrations of rationalized irrationality, the
construct left intact.
Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes
are radically free of such material marks of the artist's labor. The
constitutive moment that Ligon's word paintings locate in language and discursive imagination can be found here in the viewing of the photographs that forms their subjectivity. However,
Ligon's work is not the bare dialogue of subject and object viewer
and photograph but another level mediating the viewing of the artist-subject's dialogue with its object, these
photos. It is still Ligon's dialogue with blackness that is objectified,
through the critical reification of the shared racial imagination,
implicating both viewer and artist. (As in Mapplethorpe's ambiguously or ironically aestheticized black male nudes, the context of artistic exhibition of the images is presented as being coterminous with racist society, and is thus problematized: to this extent Ligon's work is "post-modernist.") The presentation of the photographs
as non-identical objects history-weathered artifacts
throws into relief the very act of their collection and juxtaposition,
their identification with one another, their passing from prior
owners and disparate origins in social history through the artist to the viewer.
Their formal congruence in Ligon's presentation produces a shared identity
of blackness, and it is shown to be an uncomfortable identity,
violating the mute innocence of the photographic objects in the same way it violates
that of their represented subjects, regarded as they are by the compulsively
identifying racist consciousness of artist and
Language does appear here and there, in tidy typed
captions on tiny slivers of paper, like that found in personal memos or diary
jottings: they are notes to oneself. But they speak more than the artist's voice. Through these captions a small voice peers out and comments upon
the shared experience of artist and viewer looking at the photographs,
and it is a lark-like voice, the same lark that dances from one
iteration to the next in Ligon's word paintings, playing in and
around language, aware of its own complicity. In these captions, the lark's wry irreverence tells us it is not
safe in the larger world, that these photos are unsafe under this gaze. The captions are like the ironic utterances of a doomed prisoner under interrogation is it a guilty voice? The lark's voice is as vulnerable and
evanescent as the disarmingly naked bodies in the
erotic photos and the private moments in the family photos,
snatched from the jaws of the racist world.
In the artist's studio, I stood over a table covered
with the photographic raw materials for "A Feast of Scraps" and
Photos & Notes. Some of the photographs had already
made their way into the installations or photo essay; others
waited behind the plastic covers of photo album pages, or bound
within the pages of bygone erotic serials. Buried under a pile
of bodies, faces and penises each sealed within an unfocused
blur, a poor registration of cheap reproduction, or within the
amber of a different time and curling like some of the prints,
a shred of paper read: "I got played." How much these words spoke
for every one of the fragile moments whose trace was left in the photos.
Are the erotic photos
of black men, circulated according to stereotyped fascinations,
a confirmation of James Baldwin's "you took the best, so why
not take the rest?"10
Or was the mote "I got played," nestling with Ligon's own
smiling face in a high-school studio portrait, the assertion
of an otherwise mute resistance, through sheer thing-hood, that the photos continue to enact?
Roland Barthes's various explorations
of photography were motivated by his struggle to identify what
impelled his return to certain photographs.11 Barthes pointed to the
ways photographs contained for him something not quite possible
to articulate, an "excess" of signification specific to photographic representation.
He accounted for this excess, variously, as "photographic non-signification,"
a "non-coded iconic message," a "signifier without a signified,"
and a "third" or "obtuse" meaning. In Camera Lucida, Barthes
located this effect in the "punctum" of a photograph, a detail
that seized his attention beyond and at odds with the photo's
ostensible representational functions. Ligon,
in "A Feast of Scraps", writes of
aspects of the photographic representations of black men beyond the
sum of their apparent uses, the deployment of white fantasies
of blackness, that
Many of the images I'm looking at replay these stereotypes,
yet as I try to put them aside I find I can't. A look, a face,
a body, keeps bringing me back to them.12
What Barthes called the semiotic excess of photography might become, in photographs
of black people, an analogue for existence in excess of racist
determination. In Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" this becomes a formal gesture embodied by each photo, individually
couched in the stereotypical, placed in a series of photos with
the sole common denominator of blackness. The work of art asks that each photo be seen equivalently, but this throws into relief the request that each photo makes to be seen differently. The non-identity of the photographic object appeals to a non-identity of the subject, as each photo unfolds its palimpsest layers of historically sedimented or accreted signification and meaning differently with each viewing.
Barthes discussed how in
photography, apart from other forms of signification, that
the code of connotation [is] apparently neither "natural"
nor "artificial" but historical, or perhaps one should say "cultural" . . . the
link between signifier and signified i.e., strictly speaking,
the signification remains if not unmotivated, at least
What is captured by the photograph is
not merely an irreducible moment of the "here and then"
(Camera Lucida) a past moment presented again by
the photograph but the viewer's historical relationship
to that past in the meaning-making moment of the present in ideology:
Hence we cannot say that modern man projects into his reading
of the photograph certain characterial or "eternal" feelings
and values, i.e., infra- or trans-historical feelings and values,
unless we make it clear that signification is always elaborated
by a specific history and society. . . . Thanks to its code of
connotation, the reading of the photograph is therefore always
Benjamin identified that moment
of photography that distinguishes it from other forms of representation, its revelation of history:
Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will
recognize how alive the contradictions are, here too: the most
precise technology can give its products a magical value, such
as a painted picture can never again have for us. No matter how
artful the photographer, no matter how carefully placed his subject,
the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture
for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with
which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the
inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten
moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back,
may rediscover it.15
In this way, photography holds a unique position in the relation
of history and ideology. It is an impersonal, mechanically
and chemically contingent moment in time and space that confronts present subjectivity in ideology and the apparent logic of social history that the present appropriates to itself. Present subjectivity confronts the effects of a formal motivation that can be attributed only to the photographic representational apparatus, a camera obscura in the past. Capturing isolated, frozen moments
inaccessible to lived experience, photographs throw down the
gauntlet of history, through the insistence of the small moments
they encapsulate they can be erased but not denied. Conversely,
what Barthes called the social "domestication" of photographs
threatens to turn them instead into the opposite: monstrous tautologies.
Photographs can serve as terrible empirical evidence of a timeless
status quo: this is the way it has been always
this is the way it is going to be. But the cure for ideology
is the intrusion of history: the fleeting recognition of that
fugitive moment captured in a photograph of the way it was,
proof of what has been lost.
Glenn Ligon and I discussed his process of collecting
the photographs and incorporating them into "A Feast of Scraps"
and Photos & Notes. Looking through a pile of photographs
on his studio table, I was able to experience the sense of searching
through boxes of photos at New York's Gay Treasures thrift resale shop,
going through the personal memorabilia of those who had died.
And I was touched by a terrible realization of evanescence: the
fleeting lives of the people depicted in the photos, and
the absent amorous glances still charging the faded surfaces.
If, according to Barthes, the basic gesture of
a photograph is "Look!" (at what is depicted), then the basic
gesture of Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" is "Look at these photographs!" Ligon's
work pointed me to a shared recognition of that experience Barthes
called the "pangs of love . . . stirred by certain photographs:"
In each of them, inescapably, I passed beyond the unreality
of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle,
into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going