Exploring the serious questions of humor in photography.

Delightful, spooky, and dark images fascinate Louis Kaplan, PhD’88, professor of history and theory of photography and new media at the University of Toronto. The author of books like The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer (2008) and Gumby: The Authorized Biography of the World’s Favorite Clayboy (1986), which he co-wrote as a fun distraction from his thesis, Kaplan published Photography and Humour with Reaktion books in late 2016. Says Kaplan: “We need humor now more than ever.”

What does humor have to do with the social sciences? 

There is the social function of photography, the fact that it acts as a social bond and a source of integration. Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, wrote a book on this, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. There is a chapter in my book called “Social Snaps,” about the ways in which these photos can also serve dis-integration. I talk about a genre of stereoviews from the 19th century that are all about making fun of domestic happiness, like the domestic TV comedies which people are still familiar with—that’s how that visual entertainment took shape in the 19th century. Each chapter of my book is organized around ways in which we have conceived photography’s being in the world and genres that make fun of these theorized functions.

In the book you quote Charles Dickens: “When photography tries to be funny, there is one, and only one result: vulgarity, and vulgarity of the most tragic and lachrymose kind.” Why did he take such issue with the genre? 

He’s writing at a time when photography is just making the scene. There’s a fear that the visual humor will be a competition for literary humor, and so he’s trying to discipline that new type of humor out, and he does it by being contemptuous and belittling it. In a way it’s ironic because Dickens was a very popular writer. He was always appealing to the masses and to the base instincts in a lot of his writings. 

What attracted you to UChicago’s Intellectual History program?

My undergrad degree at Harvard was in social studies—an interdisciplinary program that covered social sciences including social and political theory. What attracted me to Intellectual History was its interdisciplinarity, its ability to cross borders like my undergrad program. I specialized so I wouldn’t have to specialize. 

Which of the images in your book could you most imagine hanging in your home? 

I’m a great fan of Weegee. I come from a background of Jewish humor: laughing through your tears. There’s a lot of that in Weegee’s work that I really identify with. His image Simply Add Boiling Water shows an image/text joke that he took in relationship to a fire at a factory that happened to display a billboard advertising Hygrade Frankfurters. Part of it relies on the idea of timing, being in the right place at the right time. Part of it is that you should be in tears—here’s this building burning down, and there might be people inside of it. This joke intervenes to make things at least feel a little bit better.  

—CLAIRE ZULKEY