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Without Words You Spoke: Queer Representing, Early Photography and Feeling

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posted on 22.05.2021, 10:43 authored by Steph Schem Rogerson
By examining historical queerness through the lens of photography, this dissertation examines how the past contributes valuable knowledge about where we have been and where we are going. The history of queer representation is laden with violence, erasure and shame, as well as survival and persistence. I approach this legacy by bringing together three principal topics that I argue are closely related: queer photographic practices, the politics of the archive, and affect theory. Through the analysis of social conditions that formed discourses of homosexuality and industrialism’s development of photography in the late nineteenth century, the tension between oppressive laws and social change comes clear: it reveals a cultural crisis of taxonomy and representation in queer visual history. The slippages between cultural economy and representation are exemplified in nineteenth century visual culture as political economy was increasingly entwined with the individual and the state. Out of this matrix comes the advent of photography. Inexpensive and accessible mechanical reproduction made it possible for the apparatus of photography to be both complicit in the categorization and repression of homosexuality, as well as a site of subversion of the status quo. Conventions in portraiture photography inscribed the construction of normativity through ‘the cult of the empire,’ yet queer subjectivities challenged these standards. A number of specific case studies involving women photographers and photographic subjects – such as Mabel Hampton, Bonnie and Semoura Clark, Alice Austen, and found photographs from my personal collection illustrate a symbolic defiance to hegemonic structures. By investigating archival material with a specific focus on queer history and photography, the case studies illustrate how our affective lives are saturated with political meaning. Photography wields unusual power when examining the relationship between affect and feeling. The affect of photography derives from its insistence on the past. Yet, photography produces a here and now that can resist strictures of heteronormativity and patriarchy through politicized feelings. The approach to queer historization is firmly rooted in notions of social justice imperatives and anti-oppressive political strategies that include racism, gender inequality and classism. Queer archives evoke cultural persistence and knowledge through the affective context of remembering.





Doctor of Philosophy


Communication and Culture

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type


Thesis Advisor

Sophie Thomas