Dark Mirrors, an essay collection by the British-Ugandan photographer and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, compiles sixteen texts, written between 2015 and 2021. Structured as a series of close readings of different photographers’ bodies of work—ranging from Lewis Baltz’s landscape photographs to Deana Lawson’s artificially lit and dramatically staged portraits of the global Black working class—Dark Mirrors packs in heavily footnoted and passionate polemics on the stakes (and responsibilities) of various documentary modes.
Wolukau-Wanambwa begins his illuminating introductory essay, “Times Like These,” by noting that books on the theory and history of photography now vastly outnumber books of photo criticism. “What is lost” in this relative neglect of photo criticism, he writes, “is a peopled space of thinking critically together, in the moment, about the specific aims and effects of the work that we see and share.” As Wolukau-Wanambwa outlines, the backdrop for the book’s essays is the tumultuous events of the past decade, from the 2014 Ferguson protests to the 2021 Capitol riot, in which the fragility of the social order becomes evident. “It is essential to account for the conditions of my viewing, to acknowledge and to seek some measure of the broader moment in which that viewing has unfolded, and to think through its effects on—or segregation from—my, yours, or perhaps our everyday experience.” The social and political conditions at the time of the image’s creation must be considered alongside the conditions at the time of writing. Dark Mirrors encourages the reader to do the same legwork of asking how images travel to them and when.
Wolukau-Wanambwa attends in particular to ongoing liberation struggles—like the Movement for Black Lives and those for Indigenous self-determination across the world—to guide his work within the “precincts” of art photography. He takes on these movements’ demands to question the practices of major institutions, especially how they have answered calls for racial justice by mounting monographic exhibitions of African-American artists like Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems. While such exhibitions are undoubtedly well-deserved and necessary, the solo show format plucks individual luminaries from their rich histories and thematic contexts, while distracting from institutions’ records of ignoring the artists they now celebrate. Monographic exhibitions, he argues, “simultaneously feign responsiveness to and defer a broader engagement with subaltern histories and experiences.” Such exhibitions also put pressure on an individual to represent a diverse demographic, while also assimilating artists into an undisturbed photographic canon. For institutions to truly engage critically with the work of Black artists, he argues, “requires an engagement with the aesthetic and political, the creative and conceptual worlds from which such art has emerged, and in relation to which it has flourished.”
A number of the book’s essays are concerned with white photographers—including Katy Grannan, Dana Lixenberg, and Rosalind Fox Solomon—who use the camera “to describe people from whom they are individually distinct along lines of race, gender, sexuality, or class, underscoring a willingness not to treat our disparate demographic inheritances as pre-determined destiny in our art.” This environmental portraiture reckons with the shared, albeit differently experienced, embeddedness of racism in everyday life in the U.S. One such essay, titled “The Projects,” is devoted to Dutch photographer Lixenberg’s now out-of-print book Imperial Courts 1993–2015, which comprises 393 photographs documenting the community of Black and brown residents of the eponymous housing project in Watts, California. Wolukau-Wanambwa points out that Lixenberg’s project began in the wake of Rodney King’s assault and the resulting insurrection in Los Angeles and concluded at the time of the Freddie Gray uprisings in Baltimore. He suggests that projects like Lixenberg’s, which embrace the tensions inherent in the confrontation of a white photographer from another country and Imperial Courts’s residents offer a complicated and necessary rebuttal to the saturation of violent images that crowd our daily lives. To Wolukau-Wanambwa, the portraits answer the question “what is it to be black in America” with a sense that it is to be “wary of white attention, wary of exposure, circumspect about a reciprocal encounter between strangers, even within the precincts of one’s own home.” Throughout Dark Mirrors, he trains the reader away from easy identity equations in photographic representation toward practitioners whose ultimate goal is exposing and challenging the conditions that buttress racial, gender, and economic inequality.
Another essay, “Spectacular Opacities,” takes up the work of Paul Pfeiffer, best known for series like “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (2003−18), in which Pfeiffer alters saturated color press photos of high-profile NBA games to isolate individual Black athletes. By erasing teammates, coaches, and referees from the image, the artist captures singular athletes in dramatic moments of action as they jump off the court, while the crowds appear as blurry dots. Though Pfeiffer has received significant critical attention for such works over his twenty-five year career, Wolukau-Wanambwa points out the near absence of engagement with the way Pfeiffer’s specific focus on Black male athletes constitutes a case study of racial capitalism, highlighting how the hypervisibility of the athletes’ bodies is at the center of the extractive industry of professional sports. Wolukau-Wanambwa praises Pfeiffer’s work as a model of how to depict and disrupt structural violence, which is designed to be hidden and unquestioned. Pfeiffer’s 2015 solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in the Philippines, “Vitruvian Figure,” for example, centered on a diorama and videos of empty, jumbo stadiums. Wolukau-Wanambwa situates Pfeiffer’s fascination with representing the stadium in the context of billions of dollars of federal funding in the United States that fuels stadium construction, while residents of the surrounding areas are pushed out.
While Wolukau-Wanambwa abstains from direct reflection on his own photography practice in Dark Mirrors, he shares Pfeiffer’s concern with creating a stage out of our very acts of looking and thus knowing. He offers his readers and viewers ways of noticing the underlying structures of white supremacy and patriarchy that shape how images come to live in our psyches. This is evident in his installation in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York,” on view through April 18, in which Wolukau-Wanambwa sets up tense conversations between found objects, archival images, and his own recent large-format photographs of mysterious exteriors in public space.
Within the sprawling group show, Wolukau-Wanambwa painted his portion of the gallery matte black, referencing a black box theater. Flush against one wall is the sculpture Gun Hill (2018–21), a single brick emblazoned with the word “LYNCH.” The brick’s blunt command is positioned upside down and backward (akin to the way a negative must be placed in an enlarger to be exposed so that text reads left to right). A second sculpture in the installation, Fractions (2021), is a pair of white plaster dismembered fingers, pointer and middle, evoking a “fingers crossed” position, as if a commentary on inactive hopefulness as a cover for liberalism’s denial of the brutalizing forces of white supremacy.
Four of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s photographs tower over these objects. The artist uses a 4 x 5 camera, which allows him to print large photographs with sharp details. In the corner of his installation hangs Mask(s), 2021, a close-up photograph of a commercial cigarette receptacle. Shadows from two small trapezoidal cutouts for used cigarette butts on the ashtrays resemble the triangular eye cutouts of KKK masks. At the far end of the gallery is Skins (2021), another life-size black-and-white photograph, featuring a tightly cropped depiction of the poised backs and legs of two chiseled male nude figures, one of which has a handprint in black paint slapped on his right butt-cheek in a familiar defacement of the juvenile variety. Both these photos present commonplace symbols within daily life in the United States, but they echo the centuries-old systems of power the artist draws attention to, in the hopes that they might be dismantled: an ashtray invokes a chain of associations leading to the predatory tobacco industry and the institution of chattel slavery that built America’s vast wealth. A statue in a public park, reversed to show its less than honorific backside, warns against heroic depictions of white masculinity that cultivate and protect that same wealth.
In addition to the photographs he takes himself, Wolukau-Wanambwa collects large-format negatives from sellers of discarded image archives. He scans and prints these found images, originally made by small-town photojournalists or studio portraitists who, like Wolukau-Wanambwa, used large-format cameras and black-and-white film, but for commercial ends. Sometimes he inherits biographical information about the subjects of these images; sometimes their captions are lost. Separation(s), 2021, for instance, is a triptych of three identical framed headshots of an anonymous suited bald white man, suggesting a businessman or a politician. AMWMA (2021), by contrast, the title of which is a palindrome for the initials of actress Anna May Wong, consists of a freestanding wall with seemingly identical life-size photographs of Wong hanging on both sides. She appears to be rehearsing a protective movement, an outstretched arm reclaiming her personal space. Upon closer inspection, however, the images differ slightly: one is a picture of her facing a mirror, and the other is a picture of her reflection in that mirror.
Wolukau-Wanambwa is concerned with reflections, as indicated by the title of this book, and as prompted by this mid-century film actress who is not a household name but was conscripted to play stereotyped roles. The relationships among the elements of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s installation at first seem defiantly oblique—almost as disparate as the essays in Dark Mirrors—but they call on viewers to recognize and reckon with the signifiers of white supremacy that govern daily life in the U.S. Wolukau-Wanambwa sets up dialogues, whether between reader and text or image and viewer, to dramatize these tensions, so that our line of questioning is slow and uncomfortable. By blurring the distinctions between, even equating, found images and objects with his original photographs, Wolukau-Wanambwa squares off with the very act of selection in photographing the visual world. He is a documentarian who never escapes the images already populating the built environment. He must talk to them directly.