Photographing the shadows

Teju Cole's essay on the photography of color

The print version of today's revamped New York Times Magazine featured an essay by one of my favorite writers at the moment, Teju Cole. Cole, a novelist, art historian and photographer, is also the magazine's photography critic. In this week's piece he takes a close look at the photography of color. Specifically, he discusses the way people with dark skin have been photographed by black photographers over the last 50 years. 

"Five Men, 1964," by Roy DeCarava, via

"Five Men, 1964," by Roy DeCarava, via

Back when Oprah Winfrey was hosting her daytime talk show, people would often joke about how her stage made everybody look good because the lighting and camera filters were calibrated show the depth and variance of black skin, therefore giving an attractive glow to all skin colors. I'm sure Oprah is more than smart enough to see the irony of her stage making black, white, caramel, beige and tawny skin beautiful while she and her production team broke through so many racial barriers. The fact is, cameras and film (you know, that stuff that had to be developed before there were computers to do it for us) were made and calibrated for the majority of the people who would be using them at in when such equipment was first invented. They were calibrated to capture the reality of white skin for black-and-white or sepia photography.

The flat homogeny of black, hispanic or Asian skin in the professional photography of the 1960s - 1980s (90s?)  is clear in color or black-and-white. It was a technological flaw that was bemoaned by few, but, as Cole highlights, there were some who were able to take the tools at hand and use them to make important statements about race and societal vision.

Danai Gurira in "Mother of George." Credit: Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection via

Danai Gurira in "Mother of George." Credit: Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection via

The work of pioneers such as Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks paved a way for today's photographers and cinematographers to explore image and racial perceptions at an incredibly conceptual level, using tools that are better made to work for everyone. It was exciting to read Cole's take on this, especially with the mention of Selma on the day of the Academy Awards, which is giving the movie an annoying snub* (and to see Danai Gurira used as a model to show how such explorations have evolved**).

But gradually, there comes an acceptance of the photograph and its subtle implications: that there’s more there than we might think at first glance, but also that when we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.
— Teju Cole. "On Photography: What is dark is not empty; if you know how to see, there are glories in the shadows."

Take a look at the essay. What do you think #DiversityMeans in artistic vision today? Hopefully more writers like Cole will continue to force us to consider answers that will lead to more equitable representation of the many lives that intersect and play themselves out in our country.

*This link to David Carr's Jan. 18 article made me pause. The NYT columnist's death just 25 days later rocked the American writing world. 

**Because it's always fun to read a national piece and pretend like you're besties with someone in it, because once, in a crowded room full of people who were also dying to talk to the celebrity, you had a cool conversation about artistic process with her.

It's not about that. It's not even about you.

Y'all. I'm going to get the hang of this video thing, I promise. I will. Really. [insert eye roll here]. A combination of gaffes and slow internet speeds have me posting my latest YouTube video two days after it made it onto the channel, and that was still uploaded later than intended because of the late hour in which it ended up being recorded due to me fumbling with the camera equipment (and disconnecting the mic in the process). 

Anyhow, last week Nikki Haley was inaugurated into her second term as governor of South Carolina. If you've read a blog post or two of mine over the years, you'd probably guess (correctly) that I lean a bit to the left of the American political spectrum. If you've read more than a post or two of mine of the years, you know that I think our current obsession with identity politics is asinine and childish. The United States is like an abnormal cell that can't stop dividing itself over and over again. The country has divided itself into factions according to economic, social, racial and regional lines. Now it's found another way to draw lines amongst groups within groups within groups. One can increasingly hear disdainful tones when Democrat and Republican voters refer to each other. At this rate we'll be a country made up of alienated, isolated individuals who don't leave their homes within the next 30 years. 

I don't agree with many of Gov. Haley's policies, and even some procedures, but her family was the first to fully welcome mine when we moved to South Carolina in 1989. When the Randhawa's women's clothing store was in Bamberg, I would hide beneath racks of clothes and lose myself in Anne of Green Gables while my mother shopped, talked, and took refuge from the strangeness of the place to which we'd moved. Mr. and Mrs. Randhawa would set a special candy treat aside for me during the holidays. It was a simple mixture of caramel and chocolate, and Mr. Randhawa would always tell me that the confection company created by drizzling hot caramel over hard-packed snow so it would harden, then dipping it in the chocolate. Our families were close for many years until distance and life separated the two. As my parents found social outlets around the community, Nikki and her sister, Simi, would sometimes babysit me when my parents went out. These memories are important to me because they were a warming ray of light during a time that was, frankly, very lonely for my parents and me. So when some dear friends invited me to tag along to the inaugural ball last week I had to stop and think about it for a minute. I have friends of all political persuasions, but I wouldn't normally go to the inaugural festivities of a GOP official, but this was different (of course, it was to celebrate incoming legislators, as well, but I don't know anyone who ran for office and won this year). I don't keep in touch with the governor or her family other than greetings in passing. Also, there had been that snafu with my friend and mentor, Marjory Wentworth, who is South Carolina's poet laureate. I don't know why Marjory wasn't included in the inauguration when participation is typically one of the duties of the job. It was a move that didn't sit well with me, whether or not it was intentional. 

But then I thought: 

Your dear friends have offered you an expensive and coveted ticket.

You like hanging out with them.

There will be food.

There will be a band.

There will be dancing.

You can pay someone else to go through the exhausting process of wrestling the kids to bed.

It would be really nice to give Mrs. Randhawa a big hug.

There will be political characters in attendance who represent pretty much any and everything.

You've never been to an inaugural ball before. 

It could be a lot of fun.

Oh, and this isn't about you. It's about celebrating the state where you've chosen to live--the good, the bad, and the confusing.

I went to the ball. I had a wonderful time. I hugged Mrs. Randhawa AND Gov. Haley.  I ate too much. I danced too much. Everyone was glad to see everyone. No one was talking about politics. Not even this guy: 

Yep. That's me and Gov. Chris Christie. My husband almost passed out when he saw the photo. Ha!

Yep. That's me and Gov. Chris Christie. My husband almost passed out when he saw the photo. Ha!

Before I went out, however, I read Marjory's poem into my camera, which is in the video below. Sorry about the sound quality, but enjoy!