Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Rhopographic Photography and Atemporal Cinema: The Link between Ralph Ellison’s Polaroids and Three Days before the Shooting…

Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Rhopographic Photography and Atemporal Cinema: The Link between Ralph Ellison’s Polaroids and Three Days before the Shooting…

Article excerpt

"Here in this country it's change the reel and change the man."

-Senator Adam Sunraider in Three Days Before the Shooting...

"A paradox: the same century invented History and Photography."

-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

When Ralph Ellison passed away in 1994 at the age of eighty, he left behind a treasure trove of published writing that includes numerous short stories and book reviews, more than two volumes of essays of literary and cultural criticism, and his masterpiece Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also left behind two archives-and two enigmas-that are the subjects of this essay. The first is the sprawling manuscript of an unfinished second novel upon which Ellison labored for forty years that was carefully pieced together by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley and published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting.... The other is a collection of hundreds of Polaroid photographs taken by Ellison over the last thirty years of his life, the subjects of which consist almost entirely of objects instead of people.

When viewed in relation rather than in isolation, these two archives become less enigmatic. Instead, they appear as homologous components of Ellison's lifelong exploration of visual technologies of mechanical reproduction and the role these technologies play in reducing temporalities to form. That a tight connection exists between Ellison's photography and his fiction writing was first fully realized by Sara Blair, who convincingly demonstrates how the historical critique of Invisible Man is informed by, if not rehearsed in, Ellison's early street photography. In this essay, I extend Blair's argument by examining Ellison's later photography alongside his post-Invisible Man fiction. In the process, I illustrate how Ellison spent the last decades of his life using pen and camera together to trouble the temporal construct of static time that subtends progressive, linear histories-histories that underwrite the racial cartographies Ellison so lucidly critiqued in Invisible Man.

To understand both the importance of Ellison's Polaroids and the ekphrastic logic of Three Days, Ellison's "instant" photographs need to be viewed as antidotes to the ways of seeing formalized by the sequential photographic apparatuses that organ-ize the identities of two of the novel's principal characters. In Three Days, Ellison juxtaposes the first-person narratives of two white subjects who internalize the form(s) of mechanical visual reproduction associated with his current and/or former profession. Book I of the novel is told from the point of view of a journalist and self-proclaimed liberal named Welborn McIntyre who unconsciously objectifies and thereby "mortifies" African Americans with a photographic gaze reflexively doubled by the still images that surround him. Book II, in turn, is partially told from the perspective of a U.S. Senator named Adam Sunraider whose atemporal filmic creations, traces of his younger days as a cinematographer, erupt into and overwrite his own disjointed personal history. These characters' modes of seeing and the technologies through which they are formalized represent two different, but equally problematic relationships to the past and, by extension, U.S. racial history.

Crucially, each character's way of seeing is simulated ekphrastically in the respective books that constitute Ellison's novel. McIntyre views history as a linear progression, a view Ellison explicitly likens to a work of narrative cinema and, more pointedly, the sequential still images of which motion pictures are comprised. Because of McIntyre's unconscious racism and concomitant impulse to view black subjects as "object[s] of historical knowledge" (Gualtieri 155), his cinematic narrative is populated with still shots and freeze frames of African Americans. McIntyre's photographic gaze therefore photogrammatically reproduces the imaginary static material of which progressive history is made. …

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