This book comprises a collection of essays on the work of photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—F. Holland Day, Eadweard Muybridge, A. J. Russell, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, as well as essays on Roland Barthes and Camera Lucida, and on the images from Abu Ghraib.
The title of Shawn Michelle Smith’s work comes from her use of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious. Smith finds that as photography expanded the realm of the visible, it “simultaneously demonstrated” the limits of what we can see. She is thus interested in the ways each of these photographers leads us to places where their unconscious drive has exceeded the limits of their medium. Much like Martin Berger, whose 2005 Sight Unseen, in Smith’s words, “argues that representations of the landscape are always racialized” (p. 123), Smith identifies the problem of race and representation within the work of each of these photographers, giving important new readings to canonical works.