Putting a lens on race, photography, and citizenship
CAMBRIDGE — What’s the relationship between race, photography, and citizenship?
That question lies at the heart of Harvard scholar Sarah Lewis’s work, which these days is having quite a moment.
Last summer, the curator and art historian caused a major stir when she guest-edited “Vision & Justice,” a special issue of Aperture magazine on photography and the African-American experience. The issue, showcasing the work of academics, artists, and photographers, was quickly embraced by readers for its panoptic view of black life, selling 20,000 copies in less than two months and becoming required reading for all incoming freshman at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Lewis, who in 2015 became an assistant professor in Harvard’s history of art and architecture department and its African and African American studies department, followed the issue last fall with a course of her own: “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship,” which also featured an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums.
Now, as the exhibition closes Sunday, “Vision & Justice” has taken on a life of its own. Lewis has been asked to make the course a regular feature of her teaching at Harvard. She’s in talks about a proposed documentary series. She is creating an online K-12 curriculum and exhibition, and this March she will launch a three-part course at the Brooklyn Public Library.
“It took me by surprise,” said Lewis, 37, while touring the museum exhibit. “I think the reason there’s so much interest is that it’s connecting with ideas of justice and citizenship more broadly — beyond just the art world.”
Emerging in the twilight of the Obama presidency, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained force during an election year that revealed ever deeper fissures in American society, “Vision & Justice” is being viewed by many as an eloquent visual commentary for our broader political moment.
“Sarah found a visual language for larger political trends unfolding within the US generally and more specifically within the African-American community,” said Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “The movement is there, but she’s found the visual analog for Black Lives Matter. No one’s done that before.”
For Lewis, who has also held curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, visual images have the power to shape cultural norms — by reinforcing culturally freighted stereotypes or acting to open new perspectives.
“In the end . . . it’s about the history of photography as a medium and its relationship to the creation of race,” said Lewis. “What the Aperture issue does is it shows the power of photography to offer a corrective to the narratives that have been set up by the history of photojournalism in particular.”
Anchored by Gates’s essay on the 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Aperture issue takes as its jumping-off point Douglass’s argument that “poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove that contradiction.”
So “Vision & Justice” offers a lush view of African-American life. Its pages feature Annie Leibovitz’s graceful portraits of Michelle Obama and Serena Williams. Artist Awol Erizku’s image of a young black woman calls to mind Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and photographer Jamel Shabazz’s frank street photography shows African-Americans in their finery.
“The grace and beauty that’s in black life, that’s there, that’s what I live with, but to see it in the aggregate presents a detonation because it presents it as undeniable,” said Lewis. “In the moment it makes you recognize that you’ve been missing something that’s constantly around you.”
These images in the Aperture issue appear alongside photographs that also evoke the legacies of slavery, urban blight, depopulation, police violence.
“What’s different about this is it doesn’t objectify black people and our experience,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “It doesn’t fetishize black people. It simply presents our story intelligently and compellingly — an American narrative that happens to be a black narrative.”
While the Aperture issue deals mainly with the black experience, the Harvard course approaches race more broadly, investigating how images of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, African-Americans, and others often serve to bolster a dominant cultural narrative.
Between class sessions last fall, Lewis perused a 19th-century photograph that depicts seven Sioux children standing in a row before entering an American school. Titled “Seven little Indians in four different stages of civilization,” the image shows the children dressed in increasingly western outfits.
“The clothing represents this sort of telos of civilization — it’s almost horrific,” said Lewis, who also proffered a historical image of minority students inspecting a Native American in tribal dress, “as if he were a living fossil.” “Regardless of what [my students] do, they need to know this history when they look at images of Native Americans today to understand the way we’re reading bodies. This was an act of citizenship.”
Lewis, who graduated from Harvard in 2001 and went on to study at Oxford and Yale universities, is also the author of “The Rise,” a book about creativity, mastery, and the lessons of failure. (A related TED talk has had more than 2 million views online.)
In an age awash in visual imagery, perspectives such as Lewis’s are vital, says Deborah Willis, chair of the photography and imaging department at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
“How do we unpack the past and think about how we’ve been divided, and how do we pull it back together as a conversation?” asked Willis, whose work is featured in the Aperture issue. “This is an important way of introducing new audiences to how to read images.”
Lewis said that teaching the class has been more than a homecoming for her. As an undergraduate, she studied art history and social studies. She adds, however, that when she was young she was confused that her grandfather, who was expelled from school for asking why there were no African-Americans in the history books, had persisted as a painter and jazz musician instead of becoming a politician or activist.
“His passing made me reconsider how I framed the arts and connected with broader projects that had to do with justice,” said Lewis. “He was using art as a catalyst for racial understanding, and it got me to see the arts as constitutive for citizenship and not a luxury.”
Now, as Lewis prepares to expand her work in the form of online curricula, public seminars, and a planned documentary series, she views her return to Harvard as a culmination of sorts.
“A lot of the story is rooted here,” she said. “It gave me a hunger for this material.”
Gates, who serves as the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, said he’s been watching Lewis’s career since she was an undergraduate.
“Many of us have been waiting for Sarah,” said Gates, adding that Lewis joins a tradition of African-American public intellectuals. “We’ve been watching her mature, and as soon as she was ready we pounced.”