COOL CLASSES: “Realism, Race, and Photography”

An English course that brings visual culture to bear on the study of American literature.

Class name: “Realism, Race, and Photography”

Taught by: Assistant Professor of English Lindsay Reckson


Here’s what Reckson has to say about the course:

This class is about three complex and co-emergent practices in late 19th- and early 20th-century America: literary realism, photography, and the effort to classify human beings according to racial difference. As realism and photography each produced and circulated a consumable likeness of the real world, they also reproduced race as a “social fact:” a set of ideas or fictions of difference with real implications and real effects. So we’re exploring how realism and photography became important sites of contestation over race and representation. As we’ve discovered, the turn-of-the-century’s mania for mapping, documenting, classifying, and visualizing the real could be predatory; as the Progressive-era photographer Jacob Riis noted, the flash camera (with its resemblance to a pistol) “carried terror wherever it went,” and it often went in exploitative directions. But as we’re also discovering, realism and photography could turn back the gaze on America’s practices of enforcing racial difference. From honorific portraits of black life after the Civil War by Augustus Washington and J. P. Ball, to Gertrude Käsebier’s searing images of Sioux Indians after Wounded Knee, to W. E. B. Du Bois’s selection of photographs for the 1900 Paris Exposition, we’re encountering a history of counter-narratives, counter-images, and a search for less violent and more emancipatory forms of representing the real. It’s this sense of realism and photography as double-edged, refracting, malleable practices that I’m hoping students will take away.

It’s also exciting to think together about the value of bringing visual culture to bear on our study of American literature. The hope is that by studying the collusions and intersections of these different media—rather than treating them as if they belonged to discrete academic disciplines—we can better understand the formation of a fugitive concept like race.

Thanks mainly to the efforts of William Williams, Haverford has a beautifully curated collection of 19th- and 20th-century photography. So part of my excitement to teach this class was to introduce students to this tremendous resource: to bring them into the physical space of the archive and to consider photographs as objects that circulate, that get held and handled and used to shape our everyday perceptual experience. From cartes de visite sold to raise money for freedmen’s schools during Reconstruction, to Augustus Sherman’s prints of immigrants at Ellis Island, to James Van Der Zee’s portrait of black Jews in Harlem, the collection offers an important angle on photography’s role in visualizing Americanness.

See what other courses the English Department is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience. 

Photo, “Photographer in a Crowd,” by A.P. Bedou, courtesy of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library.