Daily Notes, 22 June 2023: Cameras, Reproduction, Counter-texts, Blackness, Beauty
Black photographers undo these narratives and celebrate Black beauty not just for its own sake, but because to do so is a political act.
Wendell Jr.’s first appearance in Princess and the Hustler sent me down a rabbithole. I’m supposed to creating resources for it, but his the camera around his neck got me thinking. Mavis, his mother, is furious with him, because he’s been out for ages with his friends:
WENDELL JUNIOR. Mummy. I am really sorry.
We’re doing nothing bad. We just hang by Queen Square with our cameras…
MAVIS. So let me get this right. You sneak out of my house at whatever time on this particular day to choose to go posing in the street /
WENDELL JUNIOR. Not posing Mummy.
Leon and some other guys wanted to take photographs by the docks. And you know I’m trying to learn everything I can…
I’ll be an apprentice one day in one of them photography studios …
Wendell’s a smooth talker; he’s able to talk his mother down by appealing to her vanity:
WENDELL JUNIOR. I split from those guys so I could come back and do portraits of you…
Gon’ use some of my savings to get them developed in that place Leon goes. Over by Fishponds…
Going to take real pretty pictures of you.
_MAVIS puts down the belt – _
You gon’ shine like a queen!
MAVIS pats her hair –
MAVIS. Pictures you say?
WENDELL JUNIOR lifts the camera to his face, and circles his mother, pretending to be taking photos –
MAVIS. You think so Junior?
You know when I iron out this wig and add a little colour on my face, you wouldn’t even recognise your own mother. MAVIS preens herself –
Cameras decide what’s beautiful and what’s ugly. They present these things as fixed, immutable, but photographs, as John Berger points out, are ‘appearances’. ‘Every image embodies a way of seeing … Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.’ Who takes the photograph controls the narrative invisibly. The dominant narrative is always the narrative of normativity. In the 1960s, in which Princess and the Hustler is set, the photographer is becoming a celebrity. It is the era of David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan, the so-called ‘black trinity’, whose ways of seeing become the ways of seeing. London, through this lens, becomes ’Swinging London’.
But there is always a counter-text. Wendell’s photography mirrors a real movement of Black photographers who documented the real lives of Black people in the towns and cities. Photographers such as Neil Kenlock, Charlie Phillips, James Barnor and Armet Francis captured it all: the sorrows and the joys, the climactic and the mundane, the candid and the posed.
The photographer that came most to mind, though, was Raphael Albert, a photographer who established the Miss Black and Beautiful contest, followed by Miss West Indies in Great Britain, Miss Teenager of the West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada. Albert ran and photographed the pageants himself. His camera became a way to create a new narrative of Black beauty. In Princess, Wendell’s younger sister, the eponymous Princess, is desperate to enter (and win) a Weston-Super-Mare beauty pageant; the play brings together a new generation of who are ready to celebrate Black beauty and Black excellence. This is reinforced by the contextual framing of the Bristol Bus Boycott, whose success precipitated the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Acts, which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places”, extended to housing and employment in 1968.
Beauty matters. Referencing Naomi Wolf’s idea of beauty as ‘a currency system like the gold standard’, Kim F Hall argues that if whiteness’ normativity is tied inextricably to notions of female beauty. White = beautiful, therefore beautiful must = white. Such associations run deep; Hall explores how images of Elizabeth I drew upon white normative ideals of beauty and simultaneously created them:
(My students were) looking at representations of Elizabeth I and discussing how her whiteness becomes both a spiritual and racialized virtue specifically associated with England. If, as art historian Roy Strong notes, later paintings of Elizabeth reflect a "messianic imperialist cult" that presented her as an almost magical and divine icon of England, then the fairness so reveled in also became part of that imperialist fervor.’
Black photographers undo these narratives and celebrate Black beauty not just for its own sake, but because to do so is a political act. For me — though I still have a lot to think about — that’s what I think Princess and the Hustler is doing, too.