How does one attempt to look at a photograph that is not attached to an institutional archive and for which there is no known historical data? How does one attempt to look when all you have is the photographic object? Focusing on a circa 1893 tintype of a couple of bicyclists taken at an indoor photography studio, this essay offers a set of reading practices that position photographic subjects as coproducers with the photographer and argues for stillness as a form of movement, rather than the suspension of movement. Conceived this way, this stillness illuminates the connections between movement indoors and outdoors and imagines nineteenth century US‐based photographic subjects as diasporic cultural producers. The tintype is part of a larger set of what this essay calls bicycling photographs that were popular in the late nineteenth century, through which individuals and groups remixed two of the most popular technologies — bicycles and photography — to create new material objects that they could frame and keep in a dwelling place and move within and between dwelling places. Moreover, through the coproduction of new material objects, the duo, and many others, gave themselves other mobile lives.
In 1893 or 1894, a couple of bicyclists prepared for their trip to an indoor photography studio (fig. 1).1 They both wore clothes specifically designed for bicycling.2 She put on a long-sleeved and high-collar white blouse, a three-quarter length white skirt that billowed below her knees, dark hosiery, boots, and a low-fitting bicycle cap. She hung her bicycle purse by placing the downward facing clip, affixed to the back of the purse, onto her belt.3 He put on a long-sleeved white shirt, a tie, knickerbockers, a belt, socks, a blazer, laced-up shoes, and a low-fitting bicycle cap. Once dressed, I imagine they went outside and double-checked to make sure their bicycles were clean and in working order. They each had a safety bicycle, with two equal-size wheels, a standard diamond frame, rubber tires, and pedals attached to a crank in between the wheels. Her safety bicycle appears to have a drop-down frame, leaving a wide gulf between the seat and the handlebars so that she could easily mount the bicycle by shifting her weight onto one leg and then lifting her other leg and stepping over the middle of the bicycle. His safety bicycle appears to have a top tube frame that extends from the handlebars to the seat tube. His mounting would require a wide swing of his leg over the top tube. He also had an oil lamp, attached to the head tube above the front wheel of his bicycle, for night riding.
They rode their bicycles in tandem down paved and unpaved roads to a nearby photography studio. Once there, they greeted the photographer and discussed how they wanted to be photographed. The duo then walked with their bicycles onto the set. The flooring was wood planks and the wall backdrop appears to have been a plain white cloth. They both looked directly into the camera. The photographer snapped the shutter and their bodies, bicycles, and time were still for a few split seconds. They moved with their bicycles off the set. They waited for the photographer to process the tintype. Because tintypes did not require any drying the photographer could produce the photograph in just a few minutes.4 What did the duo do while they waited? Did they pace within the studio or outside? Attempt to sneak a glance while the photographer worked? Or did they talk about which tintype frame they liked best? Once done, they took the tintype from the photographer and looked at their likenesses represented through the photograph. Was this the first time they saw themselves represented in a photograph? Was this the first time they saw themselves coupled with their bicycles in a photograph? Was this how they imagined they looked as they rode their bicycles through a range of outdoor landscapes? Or were they looking for something else in and from the photograph?
After looking at the photograph, either she took a nickel from her bicycle purse or he retrieved a nickel from his knickerbockers pocket to pay the photographer. Once outside of the studio, they looked at themselves again. Once done looking, they placed the small, weighty, and sharp two-and-a-half-by-four-and-a-quarter tintype either in her bicycle purse or in his blazer pocket. Equipped with this photograph, this new object, this (new) way of seeing themselves and this (new) way of being seen, they took off together, perhaps on one of their favorite rides. Or, perhaps, they went straight (to one of their) home(s) to show their new photograph to others and to place it into a tintype frame. Once placed into a frame, the photograph could be placed for display or shared anywhere in a dwelling place. In a frame, it could also easily be passed back and forth between dwelling places. In the vessel of the frame, the photographic object could have its own mobile life.5
I begin with this speculative reading of the photograph, in part, because the photographic object is all I have.6 I don't know the names of the photographic subjects. I don't know the photographer's name or the name of the studio. I can't place the photograph geographically. And the exact day, month, year, and time that the photograph was taken is also unknown. It is at this point that you might be expecting me to bemoan and lament those silences. However, that response belies the fact that there are always silences.7 Of course, yes, I would love to know the names of the cyclists, their city or town, how they were intimately connected to each other, and the name of the photographer and studio. But I also recognize that historical data (names, dates, locales) connected to photographs can also be a burden or a weight, because a reliance on historical data often forecloses the pursuit of other kinds of data and other kinds of looking.8 In other words, one of the benefits of a lack of conventional historical data about this photograph is the freedom and imperative to look anew. One of the benefits of a lack of conventional historical data is the freedom and imperative to look for more.
And there is so much more in this photograph (and the many other photographs I have assembled).9 So instead of lamenting a particular set of silences, I am choosing to foreground what is quite loud: in the late nineteenth century, this duo decided to get dressed in their bicycling clothing, they decided to walk into an indoor studio with their bicycles, they decided to be still with their bicycles, and they decided to collaborate with a photographer to produce a new material object—what I call a bicycling photograph.10 I call it a bicycling photograph, which is an open compound word, to encode it with movement. The bicycling photograph was a new material object that they could look at, share with others, and put in a frame. What is also quite loud is that the duo's bicycling photograph was part of a new practice in the late nineteenth century of remixing two popular technologies: bicycles and photography. In indoor studios and outdoor landscapes, thousands of individuals, duos, trios, and more chose to be photographed in tandem with their bicycles. These decisions have pushed me to think seriously and capaciously about what it means for this duo and other photographic subjects to bring bicycles into photography studios with them. They have pushed me to think about what it means for photographic subjects to freely tether themselves to bicycles.
Photography is often described as a visual technology that immobilizes, freezes, captures photographic subjects—physically, ethically, racially, ontologically, among others. And it is the photographer, using the technology of the camera, that is considered to have the power to immobilize, freeze, and capture photographic subjects. But what about the power of photographic subjects? What about the photographic subjects’ investments in using the affordances of technologies for their own needs and desires? If we continue to pivot away from the photographer as sole producer and toward photographic subjects as coproducers,11 if we see photographic subjects bringing bicycles into the photographic frame, at least in part to signal movement, then we can also speculate that they purposefully used photography's capabilities of stillness.12 Further, we can also speculate that these photographic subjects used stillness as a choreographic device.13 Because these photographic subjects offer new ways of thinking about movement, I insist on the primacy of movement as a key force in photography. For them, then, stillness is not the suspension or absence of movement; it is a form of movement: still movement. In this way, photography is not (solely) a space of immobility or capture but a space of choreographed, purposeful stillness. And that stillness was in service of movement within the frame, movement that exceeds the frame, and the movement of the photograph as a material object. By looking longingly at bicycling photographs, all I can now see is movement.14
With this new frame for thinking about and seeing stillness as movement, let's look again at the duo to see how they use stillness as a choreographic device (fig. 2).15 Look at the care and deliberateness not only in their clothing but also in the ways they have positioned themselves in relation to each other and the bicycles. Notice the synchronicity of bodies, bicycles, limbs, and tubes. Their right hands are placed on the same spots on their respective handlebars—to the left of the center. Their left arms are straight down by their sides and their left hands are positioned in the shape of an open adjustable wrench, as if tools for their bodies and their bicycles, as if they are ready to repair themselves and/or their bicycles when needed. Their heels are touching and their feet are slightly akimbo. Even the pedals are in unison—outside pedal up and inside pedal down. Notice also how they placed their bodies closer to the back wheels than to the front, so that both their bodies and the bicycles are foregrounded, suggesting that the bicyclists and their bicycles were equally important as photographic subjects (and objects). Here, these subjects are performing a kind of doubling, with each other and their bicycles. This performance is simultaneously duet and quartet.16
For this duo, there is a direct correlation between their indoor movement with their bicycles and their outdoor movement with their bicycles. As indicated in the first speculative reading of the photograph, it is clear from the sartorial choices of the duo that they were avid cyclists. This is clear because they are wearing clothing specifically designed for outdoor cycling in the late nineteenth century. While riding outdoors, they had a different choreographic way of moving with their bicycles. (And, perhaps, different choreographic ways of moving in unison.) With their bottoms on (and off) the seats, their feet on (and off) the pedals, their hands on (and off) the handlebars, they moved with their bicycles.17 This movement included the feel of the wind on their faces, in their hair, on their skin. They could feel themselves moving through space. This movement also included hearing the many sounds of the outdoors: wind, the rubber tires gliding across a range of surfaces, their clothes flapping in the wind, the sound of metal clinking, their own voices. They could hear themselves moving through space. This movement also included the smell of rain, dirt, grass, sweat, plants, flowers, trees, mud, excrement. They could smell themselves moving through space. While they could feel and hear and smell themselves moving through space, they could not see themselves moving through space. It is this desire to see themselves, to look at themselves, that propelled them (at least in part) into the photography studio. By entering the stage of the studio, by standing on the wood planks, in front of a plain white cloth, and by striking a pose, they could, in collaboration with the photographer, orient their bodies toward still movement.
Bicycle suspension is “the system, or systems, used to suspend the rider and bicycle in order to insulate them from the roughness of the terrain.”18 It is clear from the duo's photograph that their bicycles did not have a built-in suspension system or set of systems. Therefore, they seemingly had nothing to “insulate them from the roughness of the terrain.” It is clear from this definition that the rough terrain in the late nineteenth century was due, in part, to the dearth of paved roads and bicycle trails. Not in the definition but just as clear is the United States as a rough terrain of settler colonialism and white supremacy. This rough terrain is not tempered by asserting bicycling photographs as forms of suspension or retreat or appeal capable of softening that roughness. I submit that the duo's bicycling photograph refuses the terms of a range of US systems, including the often-presumed desire of nineteenth-century photographic subjects for US citizenship, for liberal subjectivity, and for human being. By bringing bicycles in their visual framing, these photographic subjects are refusing (and playing with) the US systems of object-making and subject-making to move themselves (and those of us who behold their other mobile life) elsewhere.19
Please note that this essay centers us. Therefore, feel free to presume that all of the subjects (individuals, groups, institutions) are black (unless otherwise marked). Here, I don't assume this couple of bicyclists is a heterosexual couple. They could be a couple of friends or a couple of family members.
Bicycle clothing could be purchased at bicycle sundry stores and ordered via mail through advertisements found in local newspapers, business directories, and white bicycle magazines.
Although difficult to see in this photograph, bicycle purses were often quite elaborate. Many bicycle purses had patterned beads on the outward-facing side. On the clothes-facing side, bicycle purses usually had plain swaths of fabric or the skin of a deadened cow (turned materially and linguistically into leather) so that clothing would not be damaged. I learned about bicycle purses from Lorne Shields, white, a collector of early cycling ephemera and cycles. Shields shared two bicycle purses from his collection via Skype on May 17, 2020. Shields also sleuthed the approximate years for this photograph based on his collection of more than four thousand pre-1920 photographs.
I thank Derrais Carter for pushing me to think about “the life of the object in the vessel of the frame.” “We Be Writin’,” 2020. While the tintype did not need to be framed to have a mobile life, the frame allowed for a particular kind of display, care, and preservation. “Generated on a thin sheet of metal, tintypes could be easily sent through the mail, mounted in an album, or kept in embossed paper mats made especially for this purpose. They were also presented in leather and thermoplastic cases, identical to the ones in which daguerreotypes were packaged, or were set in jewelry, and came in every conceivable size.” Kasher, America and the Tintype, 19.
And why do I have this image? I have it because I purchased it (along with another photograph) on January 15, 2019, from Heritage Auctions, a white-owned auction house founded in the United States in 1976. My winning bid was $130, with a buyer's premium of $49, for a total of $192.75 (with tax). (The other photograph features a child with a tricycle in a studio.) Thus, I now “own” the photograph. I have become increasingly uneasy about (my participation in) the circulation of and reformulation of personal photographs into “market value” and am contemplating the (dis)connections to what Cameron Rowland calls the “legal-economic regime of property that was instituted by slavery and colonization” in Depreciation (2018). For a reproduction of Depreciation and a review of Cameron Rowland's work, see Wu, “Cameron Rowland's Property Relations.” I thank one of the anonymous peer reviewers for encouraging me to take up this unease more fully in subsequent work.
Saidiya Hartman, who often describes herself as a cultural historian, while simultaneously critiquing the discipline of history, has been central to my desire to research, think, and write in ways counter to some of my disciplinary training in history. Hartman has called her method speculation, critical fabulation, and close narration. Hartman, Wayward Lives, xiii–xv. She has also called her method “historical poetics.” Hartman, “‘Beautiful Experiments.’” For Hartman's take on the limits of fictive imagining, see Hartman, Review. Christina Sharpe also urges, “We must become undisciplined.”,Sharpe, In the Wake, 13.
I thank Derrais Carter for the idea of historical data as burden. “We Be Writin’,” 2020. For more on photography and burden, see Raiford, “Photography,” 120, 123, 124. For examples of short essays or “snapshots” of nineteenth century photographs grounded in conventional historical data, see Wallace and Smith, Pictures and Progress, 101–108, 204–10, 267–73, 321–28.
I lean into the noun assembly and the verb assemble over archive. Since the bicycling photographs I have assembled were gathered from acquaintances, collectors, friends, and family members, and purchased from auction houses and eBay, as well as institutional archives, I'm resisting the frames, tropes, metaphors, and histories of “the archive” as the central way of thinking about and theorizing with these photographs. Thinking through assembly and assemble helps me to contextualize and theorize with the photographs in ways that are attentive to those intimate and entangled genealogies. For a discussion re: the overuse of “the archives” as a term in the academy, see Berry, “House Archives Built,” 2.
By focusing on a particular type of photograph, I am interested in what it might yield for conversations about nineteenth-century visual culture. Similarly, Tina Campt focuses solely on identification photographs, which, she states, “we are most often inclined to overlook.” Campt, Listening to Images, 5.
Robin D. G. Kelley, in his introduction to Deborah Willis's Reflections in Black, argues that photographic subjects should be seen as coproducers. Kelley, Introduction, xi.
I am in conversation with a number of visual culture scholars who have theorized stillness and photography (or photographic events). Tina Campt prefers the term stasis over stillness because for her stillness means motionlessness and stasis is an “unvisible motion held in tense suspension or temporary equilibrium.” Campt, Listening to Images, 51. Grant Farred writes, “In spectacular stillness, the body makes itself, in Deleuzian fashion, cinematic. In its apprehension, the body demands that it be looked at; that its stillness, its motionlessness, be contemplated; that it be thought, thought on terms disconnected from its former (recognizable) interaction.” Farred, In Motion, 67. Harvey Young writes, “Although all photographic technology can freeze time, the pictures addressed here differ from most others in that their subjects actively perform stillness, an enactment of arrest that resonates with their daily, lived embodied experiences. I contend that a consideration of the stillness of black bodies within photography offers insight into the experience of . . . the transatlantic crossing of black captives, and an opportunity to revisit conceptualizations of the Black Diaspora as pure movement.” Young, Embodying Black Experience, 27, 29.
In my forthcoming book, Technochoreographies: Bicycles, Freedoms, Movements, I use technochoreographies as an overarching concept to signal that individuals and groups sutured movement(s) to technologies, experienced technologies as embodied practices, and made technologies sites for cultural productions.
I thank one of the anonymous peer reviewers for hipping me to Pamila Gupta's article on Ranchhod Oza's photographs. Through an analysis of thirty-five of Oza's photographs that feature bicycles, Gupta formulated “moving still . . . focusing on the analytic power of the arrestedness of the still image of a moving object . . . and emphasizing the ways in which bicycles convey mobility beyond the frame to say something about Zanzibar. Put another way, I am attempting to combine the influences of cinema and photography alongside the latent capacity for movement as embodied in both the bicycle (as the still object of the photograph) and the stilled photograph itself; they operate to suggest mobility as a layered process that combines technologies (of cinema, photography and bicycles) with particular Zanzibarian forms of trade, exchange, migration and identity.” Gupta, “Moving Still,” 195. I thank Derrais Carter and Tyina Steptoe for emailing me pdfs of the article.
I thank Jerome Dotson for suggesting that the second version of the tintype be cropped. “We Be Writin’,” 2022. Did you notice that there are different captions for figure 1 and figure 2? I made two captions to draw attention to both the power and arbitrariness of descriptions that one often finds attached to photographs at white-centered institutional archives.
Or trio and quintet, if we include the photographer.
For an imaginative take on the political implications of the “black bottom that will not give up its seat,” see Farred, In Motion, 51.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, s.v., “Bicycle Suspension,” accessed September 1, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_suspension.
Here, I am thinking in tandem with Tina Campt, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, and Uri McMillan, who are in similar and distinct ways engaging diasporic cultural production as practice and refusal. It is important to note that although I assume that the bicycling duo lived in the United States, I see them as diasporic cultural producers, and therefore, my work is oriented toward the diaspora. Campt asks, “How do we build a radical visual archive of the African diaspora that grapples with the recalcitrant and the disaffected, the unruly and the dispossessed?” Campt, Listening to Images, 3. Jackson argues that a range of African diasporic cultural producers use literary and visual technologies to “alter being (human) in a manner that neither relies on animal abjection nor reestablishes liberal humanism as the authority on being (human).” Jackson, Becoming Human, 3. McMillan contends that “objecthood provides a means for black subjects to become art objects. Becoming objects . . . proves to be a powerful tool for performing one's body.” McMillan, Embodied Avatars, 7.