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Art on Paper

Vol. 8, No. 4, p.60-63
March, 2004
Only Skin Deep

Lyle Rexer

An exhibition exploring the intersection of photography and race prompts the question: Can photography change the world?

Is it possible to use photographic images to critique other images, or, for that matter, social conditions? Before you automatically answer yes, it would be a good idea to spend time looking at this vast, didactic exhibition mounted by the International Center for Photography in New York. 

The title is “Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self The ostensible subjects are race and American identity, and how photography “constructs them. In fact, the underlying issue is racism, specifically white racism (since, as psychoanalyst Joel Kovel once pointed out, that’s the only kind that matters). Although the wall text announces that the subject is not racism per se, the fiction of racial difference is only intelligible in the context of discrimination and exclusion. It has no positive or neutral valence. Consequently, there’s certainly a lot to feel bad about among the three hundred works, especially if you’re free, white, and well over twenty-one, as I happen to be. And the 416- page catalogue hammers the point home relentlessly. Every ethnic group damaged by white racism is represented, and although gender is not at issue, lesbians are included as fellow travelers. 

The documentary evidence, combined with tendentious art, leaves you with the unavoidable impression that American society is nothing but the proverbial tissue of lies. If you’re white, you can’t help experiencing a good deal of post-colonial schadenfreude in the contemplation of just how bad we’ve been-very bad. The historical images-Southworth and Hawes’ 1845 daguerreotype of a branded hand, for example, or McPherson and Oliver’s carte de visite of The Scourged Back of a whipped slave-make your blood boil, even as they provide the satisfaction that those days, at least, are gone for good.

Except they aren’t exactly, and that is another underlying point. The bogus scientism of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, the endless debates over affirmative action when actual support for education (especially in minority-rich cities) is diminishing, the continuing importance of scapegoating in American politics all testify that the “race card is still the joker in our deck. Just ask the ghost of Strom Thurmond. 

Curators Brian Wallis of ICP and Coco Fusco, a professor of fine arts at Columbia University, round up many of the usual suspects in their critical look at the intersection of race and photography, including the documenting of racial “types by early anthropologists.

But they also find racism-racial constructions, if you prefer curatorial nicety-lurking under a lot of other bushes. Such art photo paragons as E Holland Day, Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, and even the Depression-era icon maker Dorothea Lange all get taken to task, implicitly or explicitly, for their transgressions, Lange for having papered over the fact that the subject of her most famous photograph was Native American. Photography is guilty by association, as an instrument of stereotyping-racism’s smoking gun.

Or almost guilty, but pardoned at the eleventh hour by contemporary artists. In various ways, Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, and Nikki Lee, for example, try on identities of the “other in order to critique them-that is, our assumptions about “them. In contrast to these valiant deconstructors, earlier generations tried on Indian or African costumes and made photos about it in order to experience the frisson of going native, letting it all hang out the way primitive people supposedly do. (According to the series German Indians, by Max Becher and Andrea Robbins, Europeans still do this.) Supposedly, contemporary art, with a wink and a nod, has redeemed the medium of photography of its past sins. Still, I found the naïve, clearly racist attempts to assume other identities more interesting, and more fraught with the potential for revelation, than Sherman’s blackface act. On the frontier, for instance, white settlers’ adoption of Native American dress (and vice versa) was the sign of a complex relationship, not simply a discrepancy of power. Sherman’s Untitled Film Still# 50, of a 1950s living room, says a lot more about American mythmaking. Her other slot could have been better filled with, say, Warren Neidich’s complex 1 980s meditation on the deceptions of photo archives, American History Reinvented Neidich created scenes of black life that would almost never have been photographed, then cropped the images to show how the record could have been further distorted. 

Equally problematic, it seems to me, is the treatment of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. His Thomas-a stylized portrait of a nude black man posed leaning on a pedestal-appears to do all the bad things photography is routinely accused of: objectifying, stereotyping, mythicizing, pornographizing, and otherwise reducing its subject. Kobena Mercer agonizes at length about this in a catalogue essay. He eventually concludes it’s OK because it’s different for gay men. And it’s different with these photographs in particular. Mercer himself is gay, and he has a point, which is that marginalized groups negotiate their own meanings for images, words, and behaviors that often reverse conventional sense. But outside the bathhouse, the image still looks racist. You have to ask yourself, can any photograph taken by a white person of a person of color not foster debates on the construction of race? In any case, could an image do what Mercer does in print, which is to interrogate himself and a work of art? 

Which returns us to the opening question: can photographs critique racism, or anything? So many of the images in this exhibition depend on a contract between the artist or the photographer and the audience to make their points. If you show a racist the image of a lynched black person (there are several in the exhibition), you will not provoke shock or anger. Likewise Ken Light’s image of customs agents looking for Mexicans attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally: depending on which side of the Rio Grande you are on, the immigration service is either inhumane or just doing its job. Glenn Ligon’s pair of identical self-portraits ostensibly exaggerating his “black and “white features makes this point, although its intent may be different. I disagree with essayist Lauri Firstenberg that Ligon here “refutes the notion of an authentic primary subject and that “the photographed body can be incessantly replicated and renamed. The point seems to be less about representation than about who’s doing the looking.

Although this exhibition assumes the power of photography (for good and evil) to construct and sustain stereotypes, I rather think it shows photography is communicative limits. Photography is always overdetermined in terms of information and underdetermined in terms of meaning. So it is most powerful in reinforcing opinions already held, in preaching to the choir. It works almost but not quite as powerfully when confronting ignorance and shame-that is, when it works therapeutically. Today the imagery of race is so deeply ingrained in popular culture, and politically and economically so useful to certain groups and individuals, including artists, that the idea of visually dislodging racial categories is almost unthinkable.

None of this has much to do with art, and for all the artists marshaled to give us the bad news, conceptions of photographic art are a distant concern of this exhibition. By art I mean those images that somehow resist consolidation into a univocal significance, an available interpretation. This exhibition is about codes, messages, and meanings, and it favors, even demands, “readable” works, the clever, quick hits at which contemporary artists excel. I liked Miguel Calderón’s Evolution of Man, a sendup of evolutionary imagery that shows the transit of Hispanic criminal type from crouching knife- wielding savage to upright, heavily armed threat. Sun-Mi Yoo’s Seeking saf (single asian female), an installation of singles ads overlaid with photographs of some of the male seekers, is creepy and pathetic. In both cases, you get it and move on, unless, of course, you yourself share the particular fantasies being ridiculed. 

So I looked for pieces that were willing to risk their own subversion, or just laugh at themselves. There aren’t many. Lyle Ashton Harris’s America’s Triptych, does that, using movement and juxtaposition to transcend its camp, patriotic, and racist iconography and tap into a more celebratory spirit. Or so it seems to me. Simen Johan’s digital collage of a costumed girl staring at a tusked animal head on a stand is a dark and comical imagining of childhood ritual. Shimon and Lindemann’s R.J. as Glade Boy in an abandoned K-Mart parking lot, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, shows a loopy teenage superhero with a plastic bag for a helmet and belt of Glade aerosol canisters, out to freshen the world. He sure looks out of place in this dour exhibition. Ultimately, it’s love and affection for characters like Glade Boy that helps us bridge differences and overthrow stereotypes. I’m not sure photographs can teach us anything we don’t already know, but they can invite us to connect-and that’s how they change the world.

Lyle Rexer is a New York-based writer and critic.