Only Skin Deep: Part III

Imitation of Life (1959)

We started our discussion of the third section of Only Skin Deep with Lauri Firstenberg’s text, Autonomy and the Archive in America, which deals with the discourse of images from historical archives and the contemporary artists’ response to this archival system. This particular text provided a framework for looking at the other essays in this section, whose focuses deal more with specific cases and artists.

Firstenberg begins her essay with the idea that the photograph served as an unmediated and objective recording process and Barthes’ myth of photographic verity.  This idea is in line with Jennifer Gonzalez’s opening statement in the essay Morphologies, in which she writes that photography has always been allied with the “truth effect.”

Through the image of Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait Exaggerating my black Features/Self-Portrait Exaggerating my White Features (1998) juxtaposed with a photograph of a South Australian Man according to Thomas Huxley’s instructions (1870), we discussed the archive and critical responses to the archival form by contemporary artists. This led to commentaries on photography’s role in the production of racialized subjects (or “others”) and as defining whiteness as non-raced/the standard.

We looked at examples of passing for a certain race embedded in contemporary depictions of blackface, as seen on the television series Mad Men which is set during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the film Imitation of Life (1959). These ideas also resonated with Sally Stein’s essay on Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

In Caroline Vercoe’s essay on Postcards from the South Pacific, she brings up Baudelaire’s claim that photography is more an agent of forgetting than remembering. This notion can be connected not only to GI’s image souvenirs from the South Pacific, but also Toyo Miyatake’s photographs of Manzanar for the yearbook, Our World (1943-1944) in which the reality of an unjust incarceration is both masked and revealed through the work of the photographer.

For a wonderful clip from Imitation of Life (notice the role of the mirror in this scene) click link:


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