At the Edge of Sight

Photography and the Unseen

At the Edge of Sight

Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 120 photos, incl. 9 in color Published: November 2013

American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Photography

The advent of photography revolutionized perception, making visible what was once impossible to see with the human eye. In At the Edge of Sight, Shawn Michelle Smith engages these dynamics of seeing and not seeing, focusing attention as much on absence as presence, on the invisible as the visible. Exploring the limits of photography and vision, she asks: What fails to register photographically, and what remains beyond the frame? What is hidden by design, and what is obscured by cultural blindness? Smith studies manifestations of photography's brush with the unseen in her own photographic work and across the wide-ranging images of early American photographers, including F. Holland Day, Eadweard Muybridge, Andrew J. Russell, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, and Augustus Washington. She concludes by showing how concerns raised in the nineteenth century remain pertinent today in the photographs of Abu Ghraib. Ultimately, Smith explores the capacity of photography to reveal what remains beyond the edge of sight.


"Smith works to expand the field of vision of the photograph, beyond the limitations of the frame. She asks, what is hidden at the edges of photographs?.... I am a sympathetic reader. I too glut myself with old photographs, scanning and enlarging, searching for meaning in a blurred hand, a shadow without identifiable source, a mouth captured mid-word.” — Jenna Brager, The New Inquiry

At the Edge of Sight achieves an agreeable balance between the beauty of prose and the difficulty of subject matter and is therefore valuable not only for its critical insights but also for its accessible presentational style. Furthermore, Smith accompanies several chapters with her own artworks, which adds a personal note to the writing. The title thus integrates archival research, critical writing with photography and arts practice resulting in a work that offers rewarding general reading as well as useful classroom material." — Jelena Stojkovic, Visual Studies

“This is a solid invitation to rethink one’s own—and history’s—understanding of photography’s vast presence and influence on life. Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers." — C. Chiarenza, Choice

 "A provocative idea about the visual and cultural limitations of photography and a model for how to analyze photographs as complex historical documents." — Martha Sandweiss, Journal of American History

“[W]hat comes across most strongly in the book is not politics but, rather, how much photography isn’t about the perfect picturing of the historical record at all, but about the act of taking and then collecting and circulating photographs.” — Kelley Wilder, Isis

“[Smith’s] ability to consider the visual potential and proliferation of Benjamin’s optical unconscious in broad as well as political terms that makes At the Edge of Sight so critical and far reaching in its approach and insights.”  — Erina Duganne, History of Photography

“Given this persuasive combination of photographic theory, analysis and practice with history and politics, At the Edge of Sight should appeal not just to art historians and others invested in photographic theory and history, but more broadly to scholars and readers interested in American studies, visual culture, and US history.”   — Marcy J. Dinius, Journal of American Studies

"A beautifully written and deeply original book, At the Edge of Sight integrates historical and theoretical sophistication with the author’s distinguished practice of photography in very new ways. Shawn Michelle Smith investigates the medium’s patterns of blindness. This negative potential—learning to observe what one is not seeing—is revolutionary, and its profound, peculiar, uncanny force is beautifully invoked throughout." — Laura Wexler, author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism

"Shawn Michelle Smith is our foremost scholar of nineteenth– and early–twentieth–century American photography. In this book, she engages with Benjamin's notion of the optical unconscious to think through what's at the 'edge of sight' in the work of photographers and theorists, an approach that allows her to bring together, successfully, a wide range of insights and political formations." — Elspeth Brown, author of The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884-1929


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Shawn Michelle Smith is Associate Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (also published by Duke University Press) and American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture; coauthor of Lynching Photographs; and coeditor of Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (also published by Duke University Press).

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction. First Photographs 1

Excess and Accident 21

1. Race and Reproduction in Camera Lucida 23

2. The Politics of Pictorialism: Another Look at F. Holland Day 39

My Muybridge 73

3. The Space Between: Eadweard Muybridge's Motion Studies 75

4. Preparing the Way for the Train: Andrew J. Russell 99

When the Train Rolls In 129

5. Chansonetta Stanley Emmons's Nostalgic Views 131

6. Augustus Washington and the Civil Contract of Photography 165

In the Crowd 193

7. Afterimages: Abu Ghraib 195

Untitled (Abu Graib) 213

Epilogue. A Parting Glance 215

Notes 217

Bibliography 265

Index 283
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5502-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5486-4
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