I do not always feel colored…I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. —Zora Neale Hurston
So what makes a Master Artist? Mastery spoke, in theory, to one’s technical skill: “old masters,” per standard definition, were working European painters from the fourteenth through the early nineteenth century. Mastery, though, extended beyond this temporally rigid definition (and not only because some of these old masters’ paintings were created by apprentices or studios and passed off as their own). Mastery was canonical, it entailed command over a part of the world and also over the subjects that it captured. Mastery rarely exists outside of whiteness and masculinism because mastery connotes dominion and domination: it is the template against which all things are contrasted and evaluated, it is both epoch-making and definitive.
These masters are not unlike other masters, ones that sought to own and define their respective means of production. These European masters could be analogous to a more uncomfortably familiar mastery because they exist within the same epistemological regime. Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic L’Uomo Vitruviano (c. 1490), or The Vitruvian Man, cannot be divorced from the European notions of corporality and proportionality and universalizible personhood that it represented and that it came to embody through other adaptations. Slave masters, too, were old masters. They were men that had perfected and made efficient the art of forced servitude (and all of its justifications and even necessitation as a kind of sociality), as well as the growth of an agrarian economy that flourished from this work. They were masters, also, of science: in an adaptive response to the abolishment of the slave trade, they artfully bred their chattel-enslaved Black people to coax out the strongest and most productive physicality. Eugenics was their art of ideal man-making à la The Vitruvian Man’s meeting of art and science. Mastery is the capture and control of white imagination, which in turn, permits immeasurable influence.
Defined this way, the identity of masterdom becomes inextricably linked to Black negation, a quieting and fear of Black energy, a stripping of agency, and a compelling of whiteness to define through that which is robbed and what he is not. The currency of Black manhood is a language articulated by the master’s tooling: a stolen (and then violently remade) masculinity. What’re the masters’/master’s demands of his nigger? A work ethic and capacity of a Clydesdale, the controllable virility of a mating bull, the trainable and self-sacrificial ferocity of a guard dog. The nigger man is not (“it is as a not that the slave first apprehends the master,” said Sartre), he merely performs a/his created and conditioned existence. He cannot love because his internalized inhumanity renders him incapable of both giving and receiving it. He simultaneously possesses a prostrated and weaponized body, neither of his own volition. He is beaten mercilessly to coax a resilience—one antebellum [pseudo]scientific solution to strengthen the inferior lung capacity and vitalize poor circulation of Blacks, per Samuel A. Cartwright, was slavery). The nigger cannot be human because what then is the master’s own claim to humanity? The master both requires and deeply fears his capacity for ultraviolence: from where would justifications of domination emerge if not to quell the inevitably presented threat? The master both desires and feels contemptuously towards this man: he is obsessed with the monster he has created but inexplicably cannot fully possess, much the way Frankenstein might fear eventual murder at the hands of his creature.
And what have the masters denied of this “man”? Self-subjectification and self-reference, his own erotic power outside of a desirous and controlling gaze, community, joyfulness, gentleness, an agentic militancy, softness, vulnerability. The Black man becomes, also, a means through which white masculinity and sexuality is measured and compared. (How distant, really, are Robert Mapplethorpe’s queer community and sadomasochism-informed Black phallus and buttock heavy photographs from pornographic fixations of Big Black Cock in white gaze heavy pornography? What is subverted by this gratuitous use of the nude Black form beyond reminder of whiteness’ curiosity/obsession/desire? Is it just that “society is unable to confront Black male sexuality,” or is it also possible that this provoked confrontation by white queerness continues to reinscribe the very same visual messaging upon that body?) The master has trapped him with[in] a white cube, tethered him to bondage and muscularity and monstrosity and in/sub-humanity. He has no family, no fate, and no future beyond the master. He is not allowed, and is, in fact, punished for these feminine ways, these white woman and boyish ways—he was never young, never innocent, never child. The master’s/masters’ gaze is a profanation of Black existence.
This is a portrayal rooted in colonial arrogance, a contempt so deeply rooted that white archaeologists rather entertained extraterrestrial constructions of the Great Pyramids than acknowledge Egyptian architectural competencies. The masters’ portrayal emerges/emerged from a deep-seated desire for self-elevation, a narcissification of whiteness. These colonial renderings of the Black man became a project of self-making through negation: they were what he is not and could never be. Beyond an otherworldly narcissism, there was an unspoken but palpable envy because Blacks did not seem similarly trapped within the confines of European/anglicized high culture (the only place where “culture” could possibly exist). There was a curiosity and freedom to his savagery, his animality, his childishness and naiveté; a freedom the master could never achieve for he was burdened to produce knowledge and culture, to proselytize and spread his civility to those in need. Black renderings were pornographic in their elicitation of white contentment: Black supplication is whiteness’ erotic.
On the camera, Susan Stryker writes that:
There is nothing new in pointing out that the camera has been a tool for colonization, a machine for mechanically manifesting a gaze that subjugates and re-represents what it frames, thereby rendering the body of the colonized into a visual resource for the reproduction of colonial relations of power…The ethnographic illustration, the medical case study, and the criminal mugshot are kin who haunt the background of even the most self-actualizing photographic portraiture.
So while new trope-repudiating notions of self could be fashioned by anyone through the democratization of the image-making through photography, coloniality is the specter that haunts the [re]production of Black manhood, as well as the mass consumption of the imagery. While there are acclaimed picture-takers, there is not the same ascription of mastery to photographers as with fine artists (fine artists as originally defined within European traditions, i.e. painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, and theatrical arts—forms defined through and evaluated on behalf of perceived aestheticism, as well as the purity of the discipline). An artist’s choice to engage with particular subjects can be performative and rehabilitory: an articulated interest in a subject can elide the “sonic frequencies of the quotidian practices” of the white/masters’ gaze, to borrow from Tina Campt’s methodology of seeing Black imagery through sound.
The aforementioned specter troubles not only the act of seeing and ascribing meaning upon images, but the very technology that captures Blackness: camera technology, that used fair-skinned white women to meter light settings, was not intended for colored skin and over the years was forced to adjust technologies because of corporate and consumer pressures.
Photographing Black subjects can serve an important rehabilitory function. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1973, Last of the Nuba (as well as its 1976 follow-up, The People of Kau) was the result of her fifteen years spent in central Sudan living amongst the Nuba people. It is an anthropological and ethnographic documentation of African indigeneity, a recording of an increasingly interrupted way of life from the first white woman to receive permission from the Sudanese government to live in the valley where they did. The beautiful photographs were a hit, and Riefenstahl was able to even further remove herself from the reputation of Nazi collaborator and propagandist that had plagued her since her production of the ode of the Third Reich that was Triumph of the Will (1935). But Susan Sontag refused this public exculpation of Riefenstahl’s both political and aesthetic complicity writing that
Riefenstahl’s current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful—as a filmmaker and, now, as a photographer—do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. The force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas. What is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now.
in her famed essay “Fascinating Fascism.”
Photographing the Black male body often has little to do with any real interest for or in the Black subject itself: little interest in his humanity, in the implications or consequences for his presentation, or the response of anyone that might be re-traumatized or harmed emotionally or further internalize anti-Black negativities upon confronting such an image.1
Black manhood is the ultimate canvas for white exploration because whiteness is, fundamentally, understood through the simultaneous criminalization, demonization, objectification, and contempt for the Other. Black manhood is a beautiful bogey underpinning fears of white compromise. He is a spook in all senses of the word: a tangible disruption of white order and material existence, a metaphysical manifestation of the the inevitability of whiteness’ demise. Is it possible for white photographers to capture Black male subjects—or Black subjects in general—without the spooky specter intimating these cruel intentions?
So is this inhumanity permanent? Does this preclusion form the genre of man’s inescapable reality? Is humanity simply a foregone conclusion? It cannot be—are we not agents forever imagining and forever generating new life out of this abjection? The increased accessibility of image-making and dissemination is something of a blessing (if not also a curse). The new proliferation of non-expert images and the access to enhancing capabilities positively renders the idea of a photographic master obsolete. While the cultural landscape remains segregated and while the aforementioned democratization refers more to technological availability than a redistribution of cultural capital, there exists ability to visually self-define. Black fugitivity is a refusal, a flight across both the physical borders that demarcated enslavement and some freedom and an epistemological assertion of knowing the and being in a world that can only be antagonistic and anti-Black. While not every photograph of a Black male body is a deliberate construction of personhood intended to counter long-existing white messaging, Black photography can nevertheless offer a counter of self-making by simply capturing existence as we know and understand it. Because Black feminist futurity, says Campt, offers a grammar for a “future that hasn’t happened yet but must…It is the power to imagine beyond current fact and to envision that which is not, but must be.”