Black Family by the Sea: a Note on Interpretation and Race

Below is a photograph by William Eggleston that I saw on the cover of a book called ‘How to Read a Photograph’ by Ian Jeffrey.

‘Black Family By the Sea’ by William Eggleston – used with permission: (c)Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

I didn’t buy the book (it was in a museum gift shop, and I was on my way out), but I was fascinated by the image, which is beautiful for many reasons. It has the odd, unreal quality of seeming both staged and unstaged. Notice how the family members appear as though they’ve been posed, though not necessarily by the photographer himself. They are looking into a distance that has nothing to do with the viewer, as if something has caught their attention. Perhaps they have seen something on the beach, or in the water, or have turned toward someone who has called to them from across the parking lot. Perhaps someone we can’t see is taking their picture. Or perhaps they are simply waiting. Who knows? What’s important is that this camera has caught them unaware, in an ordinary moment, yet it has framed them in such a way that their form – the actual shape they make together – becomes the focus of our attention. We tend to see them as a unit, a family, and the title of the photograph encourages us to dwell on what that means.

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us versus them

in my previous post, tim jones-yelvington brought up this important point (somewhere along the comment stream) about this us v. them dichotomy: “my kind of writer” or not, with us or against us, etc etc.

this is important because this isn’t just an “innovative” v. “traditional” writer question. even within our little world, small though it may be, there’s this split, where we have to “prove” our coolness. i mean, look who we promote. look who htmlg promotes. it’s totally a cool club. (i admit my egotism: i troll hoping to see my name. who doesn’t?) but it’s more than just that.

at &now (a conference for “innovative” writing), i found myself an underwhelming minority. when we (“my kind of writer” which we all were there) went out, i was consistently the only female, among fifteen to twenty males. when we went out, james yeh & i were the only “non-white” people. when we went out, almost all of us had academic affiliations in one way or any. (yeah, here, there was a bit more of a split, but come on!)

let’s just say: there’s a mold.

“my kind of writer”: turns out he’s not really “my kind” at all. so then it becomes problematic for me, where it’s impossible to NOT question whether i’m just a “them” being paraded with “us,” a poster child for diversity & open-mindedness. (ok. i get it. asians are, after all, the “model minority.”) i don’t want to be a token. nor do i think i’m being too sensitive about this.

ok. this isn’t where i wanted this post to go at all. but this is where it went. i want to ask about clubs & exclusivity. i want to ask about the hip factor. i want to ask about gender and class and race and heteronormativity. i mean, let’s just admit it: we’re a privileged crew, whether monetarily or educationally.

so what’s “us” anymore?