ed. by Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu. Duke University Press, April 2014. 397 p. ill. ISBN 9780822355410 (pbk.), $27.95; ISBN 9780822355267 (cl.), $99.95.
Reviewed January 2015
Sandra Cowan, University of Lethbridge Library, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
Feeling Photography focuses on expanding our thinking about photography from a medium that is merely seen to a medium that is felt—that affects us emotionally. This line of thought is informed by, but a departure from, the usual philosophical and theoretical ways of critically engaging with photography. Grounding their thinking in Roland Barthes and his consideration of "affective intentionality," the writers explore various themes to do with feeling and photography. By combining affect theory and photo criticism, this work breaks some new ground in both fields.
This is a collection of thirteen thoughtful essays by Canadian and American scholars in fields ranging from gender studies to literature to visual studies. The book is divided into three thematic parts entitled "Touchy-Feely," "Intimacy and Sentiment," and "Affective Archives." It includes a substantial and useful bibliography, an index, and an insightful introduction and epilogue by the editors, who do a wonderful job of bringing together and contextualizing the varied essays within the book. It is a text-heavy photography book, but includes twenty color plates, and several black-and-white images interspersed throughout to illustrate the theoretical content.
The book aims to take up the question of what it means to feel photography by showcasing diverse works that analyze the question from different perspectives. Representing a range of views and interpretations, each essay addresses the theme in a very specific way. Some of these include a look at historical American studio photos and the way that they were created to perpetuate what were considered to be appropriate performances of white bourgeoisie and racist attitudes in "Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile" (Tanya Sheehan).
Another example is Kimberly Juanita Brown's analysis of the emotional reaction to South African photographer Kevin Carter and his famous 1993 photo Vulture Watching Starving Child. There is an exploration of creative and experimental archival practices of objects animated by feelings in "Photographing Objects as Queer Archival Practice" (Ann Cvetkovich). Thus, each essay is fascinating in its own right.
As the editors say, "[t]his volume offers a snapshot of contemporary inquiries regarding the relationship between the photographic image and affect, emotion, and feeling" (p. 20). It is successful in the contemporaneity, the snapshot quality of the collection, and the exploration of photography and feeling; I found it a fascinating read.
To my knowledge, the book is unique in its coverage of this perspective on photography, and I would recommend this book for anyone interested in photography and visual culture on a theoretical level. Very useful for undergraduate and graduate studies in fine arts, visual culture, gender studies, and, obviously, photography.