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Yechen Zhao: Evidence of Things Not Seen

Date and Time: 
Wednesday, March 17, 2021. 12:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Zoom
Workshop: 
Working Group in Literary & Visual Culture 2020
Meeting Description: 

The book Wisconsin Death Trip (Michael Lesy, 1973) juxtaposes Charles van Schaick's nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century photographs of townspeople in Black River Falls, Wisconsin with newspaper clippings of grisly local murders and crimes. Lesy's publication anticipates the "forensic aesthetic" described in Ralph Rugoff's 1997 exhibition Scene of the Crime: the book's images and text underscore their cluelike status, while emphasizing the reader's role as an investigator who traces prior actions and motivations. Turning to the scientific and legal practices that constituted forensics by the 1970's, this paper focuses on Wisconsin Death Trip's prescient signaling of forensics as a hermeneutic procedure whose dominance extends beyond crime scene photographs. Drawing from police lab protocols, forensics manuals, and case law, Yechen Zhao will show how Death Trip's transformations of a historical archive mirrored a set of prosecutorial techniques for interpreting images, which was shaped by contemporaneous paradigm shifts in criminal investigations and trials. In short, the book processes photographs and newspaper clippings into admissible evidence for a historical claim about death and madness in rural America. Dr. Rabia Belt, associate professor of law at Stanford Law School, will provide a response to Yechen's paper.

Yechen Zhao is a doctoral student in art history at Stanford University. He studies the historical, philosophical, and poetic impacts of photography on art history. He is currently writing a dissertation on posthumously discovered photography in 1970's America. Other research projects include the MoMA installation photographer Soichi Sunami, and the sixteenth-century Saint Veronica Altarpiece formerly displayed in Old Saint Peter's Basilica. His work has been generously supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Center for Creative Photography.

Rabia Belt is a legal historian whose scholarship focuses on disability and citizenship. Her scholarship ranges from cultural analysis of disability in media, to contemporary issues facing voters with disability, to the historical treatment of disabled Americans. She is currently writing a book titled Disabling Democracy in America: Disability, Citizenship, Suffrage, and the Law, 1819-1920. In 2015, the American Society of Legal History named her a Kathryn T. Preyer Scholar for her paper “Ballots for Bullets? The Disenfranchisement of Civil War Veterans.” Professor Belt is also an advocate for people with disabilities. In 2016, President Obama named her as a Councilmember to the National Council on Disability, the independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies and practices that affect people with disabilities. Additionally, she serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Disability Rights Bar Association. Prior to joining the Stanford Law faculty, she was a visiting assistant professor and research academic fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. Earlier in her career, she was a summer associate at Preston, Gates & Ellis, LLP, a parliamentary intern with the South African Human Rights Commission, and a research intern at the Office of the Monitor for Pigford v. Glickman & Brewington v. Glickman. She received her JD from the University of Michigan Law School in 2009 and her PhD in American Studies from the University of Michigan in 2015.

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