The Harlem riot of 1935 not only signaled the end of the Harlem Renaissance; it made black America's cultural capital an icon for the challenges of American modernity. Luring photographers interested in socially conscious, journalistic, and aesthetic representation, post-Renaissance Harlem helped give rise to America's full-blown image culture and its definitive genre, documentary. The images made there in turn became critical to the work of black writers seeking to reinvent literary forms. Harlem Crossroads is the first book to examine their deep, sustained engagements with photographic practices.
Arguing for Harlem as a crossroads between writers and the image, Sara Blair explores its power for canonical writers, whose work was profoundly responsive to the changing meanings and uses of photographs. She examines literary engagements with photography from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond, among them the collaboration of Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, Richard Wright's uses of Farm Security Administration archives, James Baldwin's work with Richard Avedon, and Lorraine Hansberry's responses to civil rights images. Drawing on extensive archival work and featuring images never before published, Blair opens strikingly new views of the work of major literary figures, including Ralph Ellison's photography and its role in shaping his landmark novel Invisible Man, and Wright's uses of camera work to position himself as a modernist and postwar writer. Harlem Crossroads opens new possibilities for understanding the entangled histories of literature and the photograph, as it argues for the centrality of black writers to cultural experimentation throughout the twentieth century.
"[A] remarkable accomplishment...Worthwhile for these illustrations alone, the snapshots from the now distant past preserved forgotten Harlem tableaus...And when you factor in the ingenious fashion in which Sara Blair matches these pictures with the works of African-American literary giants, Harlem Crossroads adds up to a masterpiece making a noteworthy cultural contribution."--Kam Williams, African American Literature Book Club
"This rich, insightful study chronicles the import of photography in African American letters from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era. Through meticulous documentation, Blair argues that the photographic record of the African American experience informed the literary and creative genius of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, John Oliver Killens, and Toni Morrison, among others....Ample photographs accompany the felicitous narrative, making this a useful resource not only for literature but also for anthropology, sociology, history, and photography."--A.J. Guillaume, Jr., Choice
"Blair's text stands at the forefront of scholarship that resists academic compartmentalization and attends to the actual social practices of artists and writers. . . . As a work that draws together literary and photographic criticism, it offers clearheaded readings of particular textual passages and engages with a larger narrative about the development of the documentary photographic tradition. . . . Thanks to Blair, photographic Harlem becomes the imaginative crossroads for issues of literary and visual representation, of cross-cultural collaboration, and of creative response to white 'othering' of minority communities."--Katharine Capshaw Smith, The Journal of American History
Table of Contents:
List of Illustrations ix
Introduction: A Riot of Images: Harlem and the Pursuit of Modernity 1
Chapter One: Documenting Harlem: Images and Afterlives 19
Chapter Two: From Black Voices to Black Power: Richard Wright and the Trial of Documentary 61
Chapter Three: Ralph Ellison, Photographer 112
Chapter Four: Photo-Text Capital: James Baldwin, Richard Avedon, and the Uses of Harlem 160
Chapter Five: Dodging and Burning: The Writer and the Image after the Civil Rights Era 198
Coda: Looking Back: Toni Morrison and the Return to Plato's Cave 252