Study in Black and White

Photography, Race, Humor

By (author) Tanya Sheehan

Hardback - £39.95

Publication date:

26 November 2018

Length of book:

216 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271081106

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.”

—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University