Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Black, Not Blank: Photography's (Invisible) Archives in John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Black, Not Blank: Photography's (Invisible) Archives in John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities

Article excerpt

This essay examines the photographic practice at the heart of John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities. Considering the photographs as a kind of archive, it suggests that they reflect the problematic framework of black visual representation in dominant American culture while simultaneously pointing to the possibility of a radical new vision.


The camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is
the language of our dreams.
--James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

Medusa: snake-haired and vicious, a deadly stare. When Mr. Mallory, the peripatetic photographer/philosopher in John Edgar Wideman's Two Cities: A Love Story, first has to confront the battered, dreadfully disfigured features of young Emmett Till's lynched, now barely human form in Jet magazine, the terrible embodiment of white supremacy blends with the Gorgan's petrifying gaze. More so, perhaps, than the image's shockingly visible traces of extreme savagery, what turns Martin Mallory to stone is his instinctive knowledge of the murder's representativeness and perverse everydayness, his "understanding the vulnerability of [his] own black [body]" (Alexander 103). "Black boys like Emmett Till, like him, could die. Die suddenly, no hope, no mercy," another character in the novel later observes (Two Cities 222). But haunted by the image of Till's corpse, Mr. Mallory comes to recognize photography's dual power: if photographs can freeze and frighten, and then freeze again in fear, they can also rouse opposition to the (systemic) injustices they (sometimes inadvertently) bring into view. And they can shift the frame, to reveal other points of reference. Like Perseus stealing the dead Medusa's head to transfix his own enemies, Mr. Mallory decides to reclaim the camera, so often used to stereotype and control African Americans in American history and culture, to create a counter-archive of lived black experience. It is an archive with a difference in both content and form--rather than fixing and arresting, his pictures, many of them densely layered multiple-exposure shots, aspire to empower, to help "free others to free themselves" (119).

A ubiquitous but elusive presence, "the strange old guy who appeared one day and soon stopped being a stranger because you'd see him everywhere" (Two Cities 205), Martin Mallory--wizened, coughing, shuffling stiff-legged through the streets of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia wrapped in an oversized army coat, camera in hand--emerges as the central figure in Wideman's tale of loss and hope in two cities; he is the character who ultimately synthesizes the various narrative threads running through the novel. As he writes in one of his unsent letters to the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, his decision to become a photographer came when he returned from the battlefields of Europe, physically wearing the brands of racism. It was not enemy soldiers but members of his own unit who had left him with chronically pneumonia-riddled lungs and a leg "he won't ever be able to depend upon again" (196), and killed his comrade Gus--all for the "crime" of consorting with white women.

After a brief, postwar stint of photographing at autopsies, Mr. Mallory begins what he refers to as his "picture-taking project" (178), which documents half a century of African American history large and small, a photographic archive springing from the "arc of suffering and loss and the world too small to hold the lamentations" (174): "How can I make photos that invite a viewer to stroll around them," he asks. "I want people to see my pictures from various angles, see the image I offer as many images, one among countless ways of seeing. [...] If I ever get good, my pictures will remind people to keep a world alive around them, to keep themselves alive at the center of a storm of swirling emptiness" (91). The photographs he seeks must somehow transcend their own essential flatness, must make clear to the viewer that they constitute nothing but slivers of the world, splinters and fragments that can but stir the imagination, rather than provide, or even reference, full, authentic vistas. …

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