In her new book, Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor (Penn State Press, 2018), Tanya Sheehan, William R. Kenan Jr. Associate Professor of Art, explores how photographic humor was used in the United States and transnationally to express evolving ideas about race, Black emancipation, and civil rights. Sheehan employs a trove of understudied materials to write a new history of photography, one that encompasses the rise of the commercial portrait studio in the 1840s, the popularization of amateur photography around 1900, and the mass circulation of postcards and other photographic ephemera in the 20th century. She examines the racial politics that shaped some of the most essential elements of the medium, from the negative-positive process to the convention of the photographic smile. The book also places historical discourses in relation to contemporary art that critiques racism through humor, including the work of Genevieve Grieves, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.
By treating racial humor about and within the photographic medium as complex social commentary, rather than a collectible curiosity, Study in Black and White enriches our understanding of photography in popular culture. This interdisciplinary book will be of vital interest to scholars of art history and visual studies, critical race studies, U.S. history, and African-American studies. Acknowledging its transnational scope and contributions to the field, the Terra Foundation of American Art awarded Study in Black and White a 2018 International Publication Grant.