Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She specializes in the history and theory of photography in the United States and gender and race in visual culture. She is the author of At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (2013), which won the 2014 Lawrence W. Levine Award for best book in American cultural history from the Organization of American Historians and the 2014 Jean Goldman Book Prize from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (2004), and American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (1999). She is co-author with Dora Apel of Lynching Photographs (2007), co-editor with Maurice O. Wallace of Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (2012), and co-editor with Sharon Sliwinski of Photography and the Optical Unconscious (forthcoming 2017). She has guest edited a special issue of the journal MELUS on visual culture and race and serves on the Advisory Boards of Photography and Culture and Journal of Visual Culture.
Archive of the Ordinary: Jason Lazarus, Too Hard to Keep
This paper considers snapshot photography and affect through a discussion of artist Jason Lazarus’s Too Hard to Keep. The project is an archive and shifting installation of anonymous photographs sent to Lazarus that donors can no longer bear to keep. It highlights the dual nature of the photographic snapshot — simultaneously banal and emotionally charged, tedious and intensely affecting, private and public, a site of cultural normativity as well as resistance. In the installations of the work, viewers are confronted with photographs that are recognizable if not precisely intelligible. Drawing on recent scholarship on snapshot photography and affect, the paper proposes that photographic meaning is generated through shared cultural practices and forms, rather than through visual representation per se. Offering a close reading of Lazarus’s Too Hard to Keep, it demonstrates that photographic meaning has less to do with what an image depicts and more to do with how it is used to evoke feeling and create community. In other words, photographic meaning is located not in images, but in viewers and their affective responses to images.