For the first time in its 64-year history, the photography magazine Aperture has tapped a guest editor to focus an entire issue exclusively on the way that photography has been integral to the black experience in America. That special guest is Sarah Lewis, the scholar of race, contemporary art, and culture who has served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee. She has titled her issue Vision & Justice, and has commissioned a wide-ranging group of essays, conversations, and photographic portfolios. Beginning with a piece by Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Frederick Douglass, who is a central inspiration for the issue, the magazine explores the Black Photographers Annual, Carrie Mae Weems’s “Around the Kitchen Table” series, and how the Obama presidency has been shaped by photography. It also includes lavishly reproduced art portfolios by Lorna Simpson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deborah Willis, and Awol Erizku, among many others. (The online version of the magazine, which will continue to be published throughout the summer, also contains several more essays.)
This fall, Lewis will teach a course titled Vision & Justice at Harvard, where she is a member of the art history and African-American studies departments, and she will organize a companion exhibition to her Aperture issue at the Harvard Art Museums. I recently sat down with Lewis at her office in the New York Public Library, where she is a Cullman Fellow, to discuss her magazine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
ARTnews: Let’s go through the issue a bit. The introduction begins with you telling this very inspiring story of your grandfather getting expelled from high school. Do you remember when you first heard that story?
Sarah Lewis: I think I first heard the story when I was in the single digits, visiting him and my grandmother. I was struck by the central role that his studio occupied in this clapboard white house in rural Virginia. It seemed to me the house was signaling how important his artistic practice was, so I wanted to know more about it. My mother told me the story of why he became an artist, which was to be able to offer the very images of African-Americans that he sensed and knew were a part of history—the very history he wasn’t being taught in high school that led to asking the question that led to his expulsion. It had an impact on me.
During the launch, both you and Michael Famighetti, Aperture‘s editor, said that you wanted to cover a range and a spectrum of black images and imagery. Can you describe how you accomplished that?
The goal is to make a collection in the magazine pages of artists, photographers, writers, poets, scholars, musicians even, whose work matches the enormity of the topic, Vision & Justice, and citizenship. I wanted to be as synoptic as possible, to work with photographers whose platform isn’t necessarily the gallery space. I also wanted to make sure we were capturing the range of responses to these images, because it’s titled “Vision & Justice,” not “Images & Justice” or “Photographs & Justice” for a reason. It’s looking at the impact that these works have on us in order to shift our vision of the world. I wanted to glean the perspectives of many on that score.
Can you talk about why there are two covers—one a photo by Richard Avedon, the other by Awol Erizku?
The decision was to show both the historical importance of this relationship of Vision & Justice and the contemporary urgency of the topic today by having the Avedon and the Awol Erizku images. I chose the Avedon largely because I think he has masterfully, in that image, compositionally shown through that steely gaze the way in which an image can shift our sense of what’s in front of us, our vision unto the world. I thought it was emblematic of the entire theme of the issue, and of course it’s Martin Luther King. People often think of this topic of Vision & Justice as a reflective enterprise, of looking back on history. I think the image by Awol reminds us just how urgent this topic is right now, so I think both were important.
Vision & Justice is a very poetic title. How did you pick it?
I chose those words because I think the relationship of race and the history of art requires understanding what I call representational justice. It requires understanding the force that representation had for codifying and denigrating cultural and racial narratives in the 19th century, and the role that it plays in liberating us from them. That is why I think the word “vision” becomes a capacious word. Justice, with a capital J, is there because it is really an invitation for us to examine the role that the arts have played in getting us to see our blind spots that have led to social justice. The arts have long been a way to get us to walk toward justice, and this is the beginning for me of an exploration of how.
In your editor’s letter you address an engaged citizen. Can you explain who that is?
Being an engaged citizen requires visual literacy. I think we are actually coping with the opposite. We are dealing with more apathy than we should. I think citizenship and visual literacy are more tied today because of the platforms through technology, but I think they also require an understanding of the kind of visual analysis that we do in the art world. It requires that we look at objects and at images with both our retinal mind and our reading mind. We saw this so much in the beginning of the Obama presidency and the campaign of 2008. I think that was one of the moments where I started to understand that visual literacy was going to be key to digesting the world.
I just read the piece about the photography on Obama’s administration this morning, and it really struck me that this is very different from what I expect to read in an art magazine. It has less to do with the artistic practices of the images discussed and more to do with the cultural and political implications of these photographs.
I was determined to abolish any conception that I had about what an art magazine should do regarding this topic. The issue was inspired by Frederick Douglass, so it felt urgent and important to really look at politics. I thought it was important to situate a piece about the pictures of our first African-American president alongside the work that has been done on African-American photography, so that we could understand the nuance and complication of it. In the last two years, we have hyper-visible movement and social unrest regarding racial injustice while having an African-American president. The piece is really meant to deal with this incongruous moment we are in.
Since Aperture is a photography magazine, did you find that limiting regarding the range of images that you could present to the reader?
The short answer is no, I did not find it limiting. I found it to be an opportunity mainly because of the relationship between the moment that we are in and the one Douglass was dealing with, as it relates to photography. A more pointed answer besides no is that I saw it as an opportunity because of the very particular and central role that photography has played in codifying racial narratives. It was at the birth of photography that people tried to actually use the medium itself for these denigrating cultural narratives, and that is in large part why Douglass was so keen to subvert that relationship with photography and race, and to use it as an ennobling enterprise, as much as it had been a denigrating one, to counteract it.
One of the other essays by Carla Williams discusses the Black Photographers Annual, a short-lived journal and anthology of black photographers’ portfolios, first published in 1973. Do you see this issue of Aperture as an inheritor of that legacy?
I do see it as related to the Black Photographers Annual. Here we are in 2016, and this is the beginning of sustained engagement with photographs that offer us a more inclusive look at human life. I see it as connected certainly. The work of Black Photographers Annual stood in the breach when there weren’t publications focusing on African-American photography.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s essay on Frederick Douglass is very empowering, and at the end he says, “Even a lecture about something as seemingly apolitical as photography or art in the end must by definition be engaged within and through Douglass’s state of being as a black man in a white society in which one’s blackness signifies negation.” That seems also a guiding principle for this issue. Would you agree with that?
Yes. I think, primarily, the soul of this project is what animated Douglass to be as photographed as he was, to understand the political act of black bodies in front of a camera in the 19th century, and to remind people that speaking about photographs and blackness is a political act. It’s the relationship of black bodies and the lens is the politicized terrain. It is a charged relationship. In that way, Gates’s essay offers a framework for the reason that everything that follows it in the issue is about more than one artist’s singular vision or perspective but is instead about a much larger conversation that has to evolve.