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Photography & Race in the Cosmos

December 15, 2017

Photo of Christophe Wall-Romana reading a book

Photo of Christophe Wall-Romana reading a book
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Christophe Wall-Romana, an associate professor in the Department of French & Italian, sees surprising connections between photography, cinema, astronomy, and race. As a scholar of modern literature and poetry, along with film studies and theory, Wall-Romana is rethinking the history of cinema and photography. He gives us an inside look into his third book, Cosmopolitics Black and White: Astronomy, Race, and The Emergence of Photosensitive Modernity. He shares his inspirations, ideas, and motivations for the researching this topic.

Could you give us a brief background on your research?

The research I do is centered on cinema—not necessarily films, but the history of cinema as an apparatus, as an idea, and as a strong cultural object. Why is cinema so central? Why are cinema and moving images such attractors in our world culture? I’m seeking to explain that.

I was interested in the long origin of cinema, so looking at the early ideas of cinema in the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries. The book that I am working on right now started from trying to figure out why astronomers had been involved with proto-photography and proto-cinema. Proto-photography is the period from about the 1770s to the 1830s when some techniques of what would later become photography were experimented on without a full-functioning photographic process being ready. The same thing happened with cinema, from the 1840s to the 1880s.

I was looking at all this material and finding really interesting things in early ideas of media. But other ideas about racial differences, the abolition of slavery, and what constitutes humanity kept coming up among enlightenment thinkers of astronomy. They were just popping up left and right. I didn’t set out to write a book in which race would be a component, even though I am very interested with critical race studies. I realized if I was going to tell this story, I couldn’t leave this aside. So, I became really interested in the place of racial constructs, the ideas of how people viewed the cosmos, and the places of humans in it.

How do you connect the idea of race with photography and astronomy?

In a lot of ideas about race in the eighteenth-century, skin color was essential. A lot of astronomers, because they studied light, got interested in photochemical substances: substances that change when exposed to light, which is what led to photography.

They saw photochemistry, photosynthesis, and skin color as part of the same way that things on earth react to sunlight. For them, it was natural. It was a spectrum, and there was no reason to think that any part of that spectrum was favored or had a different status. For astronomers in particular, skin color was just on a par with photoreactive minerals. They reflected on both phenomena together, and most of them were abolitionists. François Arago, who signed the decree abolishing slavery in France in 1848, was an astronomer.

I’ll give you another example. The British astronomer William Herschel started to look for what he called “black-making rays” because he was trying to figure out how silver salts change color. They are white-grey minerals that, when exposed to light, become a brown-black color. The main silver salt was silver nitrate and it was later used by Nicéphore Niépce, the first inventor of photography. Herschel never found his “black-making rays,” but in 1800, he discovered an equally weird component of light which was invisible: infrared. That’s what makes our microwaves work.

Herschel’s idea of black-making rays is really interesting because the opposition between blackness and whiteness was very much central to Western culture and as justification for slavery. The idea that light itself had something that was black-making really upturned the symbolism of light for the late enlightenment. Blackness was in light. Blackness was a component of light—not its opposite or its absence.

What is the broader impact of your research—or what impact do you hope it will have?

The impact I hope it can have is for us to remember a moment in which science was at the forefront of abolitionism—and also revolutions. Astronomy played a very important role in the French and American revolutions. Another is to remember that behind photography and cinema, there might be some broader ideas about our collective place in the cosmos, and I think that that’s a very important idea. I want to bring back past ideas of the cosmos for rethinking relations between humans, nations, colonialism, the place of Europe, and Western notions of progress.

There is a lot of interest in the future of the earth, and the possibility of major changes to the globe’s environment that may not be reversible, so at some point we’ll have to relocate to another planet. That has become a very important and new idea in the last ten years. All those one-word Hollywood space films: Avatar, Contact, Gravity, The Martian; they all play into this idea that we’re going to have to leave the Earth behind, which is in fact a horrible idea. Like, “Oh, we screwed that one up; let’s move to another one.”

The links I retrace between race and the cosmos are very different: they’re about improving this Earth through the diversity of humans living on it. They’re about human equality and the potential of photography and cinema to show us that, as displayed in the movie Get Out, where the flash of a cell-phone releases the African American protagonist from bondage.

What about your work are you the proudest of?

Well, proud is a big word ... Let’s say I’m glad I refused to leave race out because I think race is always the thing that’s been left out. I didn’t want to be a scholar who thinks “No, I’m just going to tell this new history of cinema and photography,” or “Yeah, there’s race—but it’s not that important.”

Several people told me my book was already complicated enough by connecting astronomy, photography, and cinema. It’s made it harder for me to publish the book because academic publishers today prefer books that have a clear audience: medias, science studies, or race studies. So yes, I’m proud that I turned a corner and decided this is part of the story, and I need to tell it.

I understand that you traveled to view the total solar eclipse this past August. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

It was awesome. My wife, who’s a visual artist, and I went to Nebraska. We drove a number of hours there, and it was fantastic. It was beautiful in a strangely simple way. I had seen partial eclipses before, and partial eclipses are cool, but something magical happens during total solar eclipses. It’s the inversion—day becomes night. All the insects and birds start to sing differently, like it’s nighttime. That’s another reason why eclipses have had this special role in the history of astronomy because they show the polarity of light. Suddenly, the sun becomes black and then light again.

What was remarkable is that there were plenty of people all around the fields in Nebraska, and at the moment of totality, everyone shouted. You could hear shouts of little groups of people everywhere, for miles around without seeing them. It was a really collective moment, and it was a moment in which you feel something really bizarre is happening between the Earth and the cosmos. It made the cosmos very present.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.