Category Archives: Identity

Chapter Post: Toyo Miyatake and “Our World” by Karin Higa

Karin Higa’s chapter “Toyo Miyatake and ‘Our World’” centers on a 1944 high school year book called Our World and the photographer who made it possible, Toyo Miyatake.  The yearbook was product of high school students interned in the American concentration camp Manzanar in California which held more than 11,000 Japanese Americans from March 1942 to November 1945.  Higa’s chapter analyzes the many roles of Miyatake- as a photographer for the Our World yearbook, as the official photographer of Manzanar, as an artist and as an interned Japanese American – in relation to the phenomenon of Japanese internment and notion of Americanness in a unique historical moment.

Miyatake served for all intents and purposes as the official photograph at Manzanar assuming this role first in an illicit manner using a camera and film he had smuggled into the camp from Los Angeles, before being given essentially free reign to photograph by the camp’s director.  Prior to his internment, Miyatake had been a fairly successful photographer.  In addition to owning his own photographic studio in, Miyatake participated in a number of international and national photography salons and even worked as a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun photographing the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.  In addition, Miyatake’s work with the Shaku-do-Sha, “an interdisciplinary group of painter, poets and photographers based in Little Tokyo” uniquely positioned him as “both insider and outsider in his photographic practice” a role that likely influenced his role as a photographer in Manzanar (337).

While interned, Miyatake continued to operate as a photographer in much the same way as he had outside of the camp, photographing family events as well as daily life around the camp.  The desire to have these moments captured on film was so strong that it became necessary to institute a system of rationing whereby coupons were distributed to families for particular events.  Miyatake also photographed nearly all of the images for the Our World yearbook (with the famed Ansel Adams contributing the few not by Miyatake).  Finally, Miyatake photographed the images for Valediction which was the yearbook for Manzanar High School’s class of 1945, the final graduating class from Manzanar.

Miyatake’s personal background and the ways in which he continued to operate within some degree of normalcy are essential to Higa’s discussion of Our World as Miyatake embodies in many ways the underlying tensions of the project.  At its core, Our World represented a desire for normalcy, as the forward explains the purpose of the yearbook was to “approximate in all activities we knew ‘back home.’” (335).   The yearbook bears much in common with conventional high school annuals of the day.  Individual students are presented in rows of headshots and are identified by name as well as by the name of their home high schools, those which they would be attending were it not for their internment.  The annual also featured collaged photographs assembled to look like candid snapshots as well as an “Activities” section.  Another section entitled “Democracy” featured photographs of town hall meetings and Japanese American soldiers.  The rest of the sections were devoted to depicting various aspects of daily life in Manzanar.

A central thesis of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks is that they function as deliberate and orchestrated performances of American-ness through an excessive attempt at presenting normality intended to counteract conceptions of Japanese-Americans as the enemy.  In turn, Miyatake’s photographs extend the project beyond mere documentation by presenting images that on the surface lack a constructed narrative.  Thus, the almost banal nature of Miyatake’s photographs “underscores the absurdity of the incarceration itself.” (340).  When viewed in the context of the present day, it is this banality that makes the images even more unsettling.  As Higa writes, “it is difficult to reconcile the severe and harrowing experiences of incarceration with a seemingly contradictory picture of utter normality.” (338).

While I agree with much of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks and the work of  Miyatake, leaves little room for divergence regarding the identities of those in the camps.  In other words, Higa presents the experience of the internment camps as a monolith; an experience that erased all differences among the Japanese Americans in the camps.  As with any shared experience this was undoubtedly true to a certain extent.  While in the internment camps, outside signifiers of difference disappeared creating a shared sense of identity and experience.  However, the experience of those in the camps must inherently have diverged as well.  Within internment camps were business owners who were forced to give up their businesses while others came into the camps with little to their name.  In addition, some in the camps were already second generation American citizens while others were still citizens of Japan.  In this light, the forward of Our World stating that the students sought an approximation of activities from “back home” is problematized.  The home to which this refers is different for each student in more than just the literal sense.  While the images in the yearbook may serve as a holistic performance of “American-ness”, they did not derive from a singular sense of what that American-ness meant and what it ought to look like.  While Miyatake’s images may at first present an image of normalcy in America, in addition to overlooking the absurdity of internment to which Higa alludes, they also overlook the artificiality of this normalcy within the Japanese American community.  The presentation of the Japanese American community as just that, a singular community, is in of itself a creation within a creation and one that is not accounted for in Higa’s analysis of Miyatake’s photos

Along this same line, Higa describes Miyatake’s continued devotion to American ideals and identity even in the face of “assaults on person liberty, property, and political identity.” (343).  Higa hints at how this concept is problematic and is in fact problematized somewhat by the “self-conscious fashioning of young Japanese Americans who knew that because they looked like the enemy, they were deemed so by their own government.” (343). However, Higa fails to address the way in which this tension was concurrently playing itself out in a national and nationalistic sense.  Is a nation reductive in the sense that it represents what we all have in common, or is it about a geographical boundary within which diversity persists but exists under the umbrella of the nation?

Such a struggle plays itself out in the photographs of Miyatake as they present images seeking to demonstrate a shared identity between those within the camps and those outside of them.  These are not images of the enemy but are instead images of Americans.  At the same time, the images, and in particular Our World, demonstrate a separate community, one defined by geographical space.  This community is the one inside the camps, and in a literal sense you are either in or you’re out.  To the extent that Our World served as a performance of American-ness it also served as a performance of Japanese-American-ness one that functioned to identify otherness just as much as sameness.

While internment camps, unfortunately, came to define in part what it meant to be Japanese American, the sheer existence of such camps cut at the notion of what it meant to be American.  The American ideals Miyatake sought to uphold were in flux and not just within the camps.  In many ways, the entire country during this time was taking part in a performance of American-ness that, in the same manner as the ongoing performance in Manzanar, left unresolved many of the questions of what this American-ness meant or to what end it was serving.

Finally, the question arises as to how these images should be approached today.  For many Americans, the existence of internment camps remains a dark spot in our history, an occurrence that is often overlooked or minimized.  As has been discussed in this essay, this struggle is not new and it is likely the case that these images would have been just as troubling to some in 1944 as they remain in 2012.  Thus, who were these images intended for?  The answer to this question plays an important role in how we look at these images today.  It seems unlikely that at the time anyone outside of the camp would have seen them or that those within the camp would have expected their audience to be anyone other than themselves.  At the same time, the entire staging of both Our World and Valediction suggest, perhaps idealistically, a broader audience.  Further, yearbooks inherently speak to a future audience, encapsulating memories with the idea that we will one day return to reflect on our former selves.  Depicting vulnerable and awkward periods of our lives, yearbooks anticipate our looking back with both nostalgia and regret.

Anyone who has ever returned to a yearbook can appreciate the exercise.  For some, they see a time to which they wish they could return, other see things they wish they could forget.  In many ways, it is not so much what yearbooks depict that determines their importance in our lives.  Rather, it is just that they exist.  It is comfort that comes with knowing our memories are safely stored, that they remain in a medium to which we can always return.  A yearbook can be shared not only with those from our past but also those from our present.  The function of Miyatake’s images in this capacity both in the lives of those pictured as well as within the particular moment of American history, should not be overlooked.  Our World remains the world of those interned in Manzanar, but its existence permits those who count themselves amongst the “our” in that phrase to continue not only to exist, but more importantly to expand.

Image Sources:

http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v32n1/broz.html

All page numbers refer to-

Higa, Karin. “Toyo Miyatake and “Our World.”  In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Indigo Som: Chinese Restaurants and Chinese American Identity (Pinboard # 6)

Indigo Som, “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi”, 2004-2005

 

Indigo Som is a Chinese American who grew up in Marin County, California and remains a California based artist.  This image, entitled “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi” is part of Som’s series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South 2004-2005.  As the title indicates, the series focuses on Chinese restaurants located in Mississippi.  Som describes her impetus for the project as stemming from the contrast between the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in America and the continued characterization of a Chinese presence in America as “perpetually foreign and intrinsically un-American.”  The duality of this phenomenon was particularly striking to Som in the form of Chinese Restaurants and in particular unexpected Chinese restaurants which is to say those that you see “in tiny towns when you’ve been driving for hours with no Chinese folks in sight.”  One such place was Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In this image, the Chinese Restaurant Wu’s is shown in a desolate landscape.  Although several cars are visible in the parking lot, the image conveys a sense of isolation.  Further, although Som draws attention to the restaurant by using it as the subject of her photograph, she also highlights its mundane nature through brown and grey tonalities as well as the devoting nearly half of the frame to asphalt road along which Wu’s is located.  The ways in which Chinese restaurants have become a caricature of Chinese culture are evident in this image.  The font in which the name “Wu’s” is written appears to calls to mind, albeit tenuously, calligraphic Chinese lettering.  In addition,  the building which is otherwise a non-descript tan colored cement block, features a green overhanging pavilion roof that, despite bearing similarity to the drive thru next door, is enough to indicate in one quick glance that this is a Chinese restaurant.

Such embellishments are not necessary, yet they underscore the interplay between authenticity and foreignness that dominate American perceptions of Chinese culture. Nearly every American has eaten food from a Chinese restaurant, Chinese food is in many ways an American cultural staple.  Americans have always incorporated things from other cultures, that is in fact a defining feature of the “melting pot mentality” of American culture However, Som’s image of Wu’s reveals more than mere appropriation.  Rather what Som’s image shows is the continued isolation of Asian-American culture in favor of an imagined Asian-American culture.  The fact that this restaurant in no way resembles actual Chinese culture is not important.  Consumers of Chinese food in America are not seeking an actual Chinese culture, rather they are seeking an imagined one- one that is foreign but harmless, exotic but safe, distant but right at home.  Again, creating caricatures of other cultures as a means of harnessing or destabilizing their presence in America is not something that is unique to Chinese-Americans.  What is unique is the particular role played by Chinese restaurants in this process.  They function both as a point of contact (in some cases real, more frequently imagined) between American and Chinese American culture, but also highlight the absurdity of the American conception of Chinese-American culture as well as the continued othering of Chinese and on a broader scale, Asian culture, that makes little logistical sense.

Sources:

http://sites.asiasociety.org/arts/onewayoranother/oneway3.html#Indigo

http://www.well.com/~indigo/

http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Berkeley-artist-goes-deep-to-get-her-fill-of-2722528.php#photo-2176652

http://www.creativeworkfund.org/modern/bios/indigo_som.html

 

Pinboard #6: Victoria’s Secret

During a November 2012 fashion show, Victoria’s Secret sent model Karlie Kloss down the runway wearing a leopard-print bikini, a wealth of turquoise jewelry, and a replica of a Native American headdress. In an image from the runway show (left), a reedy white woman with light brown hair and blue eyes strikes a pose. Her stance is strong, although she is half-naked and perched atop several inches of suede-fringed platform heels. Along with the heels, she wears cheetah-print bikini underwear; a belt of turquoise, silver, and more suede fringe; a suede bra; and hefty turquoise necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Atop her head is a voluminous feathered headdress made of red, black, and white feathers. Her left hand rests on her cocked hip, elbow thrust out to the side. Her half-smile suggests amusement and charm.

The headdress worn by Kloss was a replica of a war bonnet, an object of great magical and spiritual significance for Plains Indian men. The men of these tribes historically wore the bonnet into battle and now wear it for ceremonial purposes. Victoria’s Secret’s use of the war bonnet provoked ire for several reasons, primarily because it was treated as an object with no history or purpose beyond its decorative function. War bonnets are not merely dress items; each feather has significance, and the right to wear the bonnet must be earned through service to the community. Native American war bonnets are frequently used to denote “generic Indian” by sports fans, musicians, trick-or-treaters, and retailers, with no regard for their specific origins and uses.

After pictures from the runway were released to the media prior to a planned broadcast of the event, Native American activists, feminist blogs, lawyers, and journalists immediately and forcefully criticized the lingerie retailer (and, in some cases, the model).

Victoria’s Secret edited the outfit out of the televised lineup and issued a (non) apology for “offend[ing] individuals.”  Critics of the outfit charged racism, cultural appropriation, commercialization of a sacred object, and the “hypersexualization of Native American women.” [1]

Yet, it is a strange sexualization. This image – unlike the “Prairie Pinups” investigated by Aleta M. Ringlero – is not titillating. [2] It carries no hint of the dangerously foreign, no thrill of the forbidden. The erotic appeal of Kloss’ costume is nulled by its cheap parody. The headdress, when worn with animal print panties, recalls any “savage,” not a specific sexual desire. Sported by a white woman with a coy smile, it devolves into something merely cartoonish  – something safe.

[1] Ruth Hopkins, “Victoria’s Secret is Asking to be Boycotted,” Indian Country Today Media Network

[2] See Aleta M. Ringlero, “Prairie Pinups: Reconsidering Historic Portraits of American Indian Women,” in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003)

 

Pinboard #5: Andrej Pejic & Erika Linder

In the black and white photograph on the right, model Erika Linder poses against a white backdrop. She wears loose-fitting jeans, open at the waist, which slip from her hips to reveal the band of briefs beneath the pants. The outline of a star is tattooed on her muscular stomach. Her arms are held in front of her chest and her hands grip a t-shirt; this pose conceals a seemingly sunken chest. Her face, devoid of makeup, grimaces. Her short hair is in disarray. In the color image below, male model Andrej Pejic wears a black wrap dress, long blond bedhead, and subtle, feminine makeup. The dress has slipped off of the left shoulder, and a bra strap is visible. Text lines next to Pejic’s silhouette convey that the image was produced for a Dutch lingerie advertisement, selling a bra that claims to add two cup sizes.

Are these images intended to be humorous? Perhaps – but only those in the know.  Linder, a woman, frequently works as a male model. Pejic, a man, frequently works as a female model. Linder is not a drag king, and Pejic is not a drag queen; neither model caricatures, exaggerates, or lampoons gender norms. Instead, each model conceals himself or herself within the costume of the familiar. Each model works the parameters of gender to his or her professional advantage. Linder and Pejic conform exactly to current standards of masculine and feminine beauty. They simply don’t conform the beauty standard expected of their respective sexes.

Erika Linder and Andre Pejic force us to reconsider how we recognize and react to male and female bodies. I suggest that we looked at these bodies as sexed (if not gendered), and ask why we recognize Linder as “male” in the image on the left (when she is recognizably “female” in other images) and Pejic as “female” in the image on the right (when he is recognizably “male” in other images). Which elements of Pejic’s wardrobe and makeup tell us that he should be read as she? Which aspects of Linder’s outfit and physiognomy categorize her as male? Further, do we consider these distinctions useful and expedient? Are they visually or erotically attractive? Which norms are disrupted by these images? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are norms disrupted at all if no further explanation is attached to the images?

Chapter Entry: The Misrecognition of Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother
1936
source: Library of Congress

In “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity,” Sally Stein sifts through the legacy of a familiar image with a history of misrecognition. Migrant Mother, which Stein asserts is the “most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image-making” is a portrait of Florence Thompson that Lange took at a labor camp in Nipomo, California in 1936 [1]. Since its conception, the photograph has been criticized from various points of view, and Stein spends the beginning of her essay recording these reactions, from the outrage of Lange’s boss at the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Roy Stryker, when he learned that Lange had retouched the “documentary” image, to cultural historian Wendy Kozol’s critique of the image as “a quintessential example of the FSA traffic in conservative stereotypes” [2].  Stein’s real interest lay in how Thompson gained iconic status as a white “New Deal Madonna” despite her Cherokee heritage and unmarried status, information that began to circulate as part of the photograph’s history only half a century after it was taken. The paradox of iconicity thus seems to be that Thompson was not the iconic white matriarch that she was initially taken to be; she is instead an icon of the Euro-American tendency to misrecognize Native Americans as both heirs and foils to their own racial identity.

Early in her essay, Stein demonstrates how the image was misrecognized as a symbol of conservative family values. The photograph shows Thompson flanked by two young children as she cradles a sleeping infant. The older children turn away from the camera, using Thompson’s body as a shield, while the baby dozes near her breast. Thompson’s body is thus a source of protection and sustenance, even as her worried eyes betray concern. Stein paraphrases Kozol’s argument that such images of mothers and children “chiefly served to reassure the public in the Great Depression that the most fundamental social unit—the nuclear family—was beleaguered but still strong” [3]. In reality, however, Thompson’s social unit was fractured: Thompson’s first husband died of tuberculosis in 1931, and the infant in the picture is the son of Jim Hill, from whom she would separate in the 1940s.

The perception that Lange’s subject was married and that all of her children had the same father is an example of how photographs invite assumptions that may belie the actual circumstances of the people they depict—a disconnect that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to photography’s false transparency. For spectators bring a wealth of culturally embedded assumptions to bear on the photographs they view, imbuing them with meaning that is external to the image. For instance, in this photograph, there is no patriarch, so why would a spectator assume that Thompson is supported by a stable marriage? That assumption comes not only from what a spectator may want to believe—she might feel better looking at this worried woman and her soiled children if she believes there is a man off screen who is supporting them—it also comes from the context of the photograph, which was indeed a government-endorsed image. Migrant Mother is part of a body of images taken by photographers who were dispatched by the FSA to “make a dent in the world” [4]. Their portraits of struggling Americans elicited a wide range of emotions—empathy, admiration and pride among them. FSA photographs may have been relevatory of American poverty and struggle, but they were also a screen on which spectators could project their own desires, namely about the perseverance of fellow Americans in the wake of catastrophe.

FSA photographs like Migrant Mother invited spectators to see what they both wanted and expected to see. This is not only how a widow with children out of wedlock became a “New Deal Madonna,” it is also how her Native American ancestry was mistaken for European ancestry. Stein shows how the FSA did not favor ethnic diversity by including a passage in which Roy Stryker, the aforementioned head of the FSA, explicitly discourages photographer Arthur Rothstein from photographing Native Americans: He writes,“You know I just don’t get too excited about Indians. I know it is their country and we took it away from them—to hell with it!”  [5].  For me, this is the most interesting part of the story, because it reveals how certain populations were denied visibility in the portrait of Americanness that was articulated through the visual culture of this period. Scholars like Erika Doss have pointed out how the Index of American Design, a visual encyclopedia of American folk and decorative arts that was another federally-funded Depression era initiative, largely depicted the work of Anglo Americans, including only token pieces done by Native Americans, African Americans, Southern European Americans and others who didn’t pass a certain benchmark of whiteness [6].

In her recent book, The History of White People, Nell Painter demonstrates how the category of whiteness has been in flux throughout United States history, expanding and contracting at various historical moments to include peoples of different ethnic backgrounds [7]. The Depression era was a moment when the Anglo Saxon paradigm of whiteness was reasserted in a variety of ways, especially through the veneration of folk art in English (Shaker) and German (Pennsylvania Dutch) traditions. Stein uses the words of Edmund Wilson, a literary critic and social journalist, as a testament to the privileging of Anglo heritage, despite its dilution through racial mixing, in this period: “the pure type of that English race which, assimilated on the frontier to the Indians’ hatchet profile and high cheekbones, inbred in Boston and Virginia, still haunts our American imagination as the norm from which our people have departed, the ideal towards which it ought to tend” [8].

Wilson’s words, particularly his phrasing “haunts our American imagination” reveal how Anglo Americanness has always been more of a fantasy than a reality, and that is certainly the case with Migrant Mother. After the photojournalist Bill Ganzel tracked Thompson down in 1979, the truth about Thompson’s Cherokee heritage was finally acknowledged. Whether Lange failed to be vigilant in recording the personal details of her subject or whether she willfully elided them due to her boss’s open disdain for photographs of Native Americans, the end result is the same: For decades, Thompson has been misrecognized as an ideal Euro American woman, attaining an iconicity that cannot be undone easily. Stein points out, for instance, that a recent book on race in 20th-century America continued the misrecognition of Thompson, reprinting Migrant Mother with a caption that identifies her as a “Nordic” woman and claims, “Her suffering could be thought to represent the nation in ways the distress of a black, Hispanic, Italian, or Jewish woman never could” [9]. The enduring perception that Thompson was a white woman is an example of the persistence of myth. According to Roland Barthes, “It does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it” [10].

Perhaps the widespread misrecognition of Thompson is too entrenched to be undone, but Stein’s essay demonstrates how this image is wrapped up in another kind of iconicity—as a representation of  how Euro-Americans have a history of appropriating Native Americans likenesses when imaging their own identities. Artists like Edward S. Curtis pictured Native Americans as a “vanishing race,” an approach that was not only primitivizing but also added gravitas to the definition of Americanness, in the sense that it created an evolutionary depth to the American people, despite the coevalness of native and non-Native Americans. Migrant Mother was taken about a century after President Jackson used the rhetoric of the progression of civilization in a speech to Congress in which he justified the violent means of Indian Removal as  “the extinction of one generation to make room for another” [11].

If the FSA photographs are read as a kind of yearbook of Depression-era Americans, then on the surface Native Americans appear to be as extinct as Jackson intended they would be. The irony is that Migrant Mother, the photograph which has earned the superlative of “Most American Woman” by virtue of its unrivaled circulation, actually pictures a Native American woman passing as a Euro-American woman. The inclusion of Migrant Mother in Only Skin Deep is crucial, because this image and its history of misrecognition demonstrate how racial categories are constructed through subjective perception and projection. Thompson’s skin color was light enough and her motherly obligations were prevalent enough for generations of spectators to project a fantasy of white motherhood onto her, but in reality, her misrecognition and mythologization as a white Madonna reflects more truths about what those spectators wanted to see than truths about what was actually there.

Endnotes:

1. pg. 345, Stein, Sally. “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity.” In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

2. & 3. pg. 346, Stein.

4. See Mora, Gilles, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. FSA: The American Vision. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.

5. pg. 352 Stein

6. See Doss, Erika. “American Folk Art’s ‘Distinctive Character:’ The Index of American Design and New Deal Notions of Cultural Nationalism.” In Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design, edited by Virginia Tuttle Clayton. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

7. See Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

8. & 9. pg. 354, Stein

10. pg. 130, Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

11. pg. 79, Truettner, William H. The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Quoted in William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), p. 79.

Pinboard #4: Richard Prince

Richard Prince’s Unitled (Cowboy)  is an iconic photograph that refers to an iconic advertisement that refers to an iconic American role. The image is a palimpsest of meaning, and seems to acquire additional layers of resonance with every passing year.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), chromagenic print, 1989

 

 

 

Prince (b. 1949) is an American painter and photographer. He is usually referred to as an “appropriation artist,” because his most famous works are rephotographed photographs, some of which are physically or digitally altered. Most of his early material, such as the Marlboro advertisement used in Unitled (Cowboy) came from magazines, newspapers, printed advertisements, billboards, and television. Prince is attracted to suspicious narratives in widely circulate images; of his work, he has said, “I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably.” [1]

Untitled (Cowboy) is taken from the Cowboys series, arguably Prince’s most famous works. In the far right of the frame, a cowboy seated astride a galloping horse seems to race off the very edge of the image. The rest of the image is filled with blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Each image in the Cowboys series was taken from a Marlboro cigarette ad, a campaign known for its celebration of traditional American masculinity. Marlboro’s ads seemed to depict authentic scenes of masculine action replete with wide open spaces, blue skies, tumbleweeds, lassos, and ten-gallon hats.

Prince’s rephotographs call the authenticity of these scenes into question; because Prince’s image isn’t “real,” the viewer is asked to reconsider what makes any photograph “real.” In this case, was the Marlboro ad, which appeared to document a cowboy at work, really emblematic of a type? Or staged with models? And if this “authentic” American experience could be staged, was it truly “authentic” at all?

[1] Marvin Heiferman, “Richard Prince”, “BOMB Magazine”, Summer 1988.

Pinboard #3: Tina Barney

Tina Barney photographs what she knows; born to a wealthy New York family, Barney’s work focuses on elite Northeasterners. Her images are vast, scaled like history paintings, but her subjects are intimate, and feel accessible. Barney shoots with a large format camera, enabling her to precisely record minute details of her subjects’ appearance and environments. These details are critical to her work; even as her subjects turn away from the camera, Barney creates legible portraits from their possessions and postures.

Tina Barney, The Westwater Family, chromagenic print, 1999

The Westwater Family looks like an image captured before the “real” photograph was taken. The loose arrangement of figures, lack of interaction among participants, and seeming ignorance of the photographer’s presence suggest a lack of deliberation. The image is pregnant with possibility. However, this is the final image, and Barney’s relaxed attitude towards her subject is deliberate. This approach strips Barney’s images of voyeurism, because these rooms, persons, and objects are deeply familiar to her, even if they seem exotic to the viewer. Barney’s visual style – specifically, the nearly life-size scale and extraordinary measure of detail in each image – helps the viewer feel present, as if admitted into the spaces and company of her subjects.

In The Westwater Family, Barney captures individual gestures that appear to suggest more complex narratives, complicating the apparent spontaneity of the photograph and hinting that it may not be a fully authentic record. This encourages the viewer to examine the image more closely, trying to make sense of the relationships in the image – between people, between people and objects – and build a story from the gestures and objects Barney has scattered across her visual field. Yet, the viewer is never satisfied; she has been invited into the subject’s space, but is not truly present, not truly part of Barney’s world. Barney’s images simultaneously pulls the viewer into her elite world and keeps her at a distance.

Disruption and Consumption: J.P. Ball’s Photographs of William Biggerstaff (Blog Post 2)

J.P. Ball & Son, Portrait of William Biggerstaff seated in a chair with a hand on his face wearing a flower in his lapel; Photograph of the Execution of William Biggerstaff, hanged for the murder of “Dick” Johnson, flanked by Rev. Victor Day and Henry Jurgens, sheriff, 1896; Photograph of William Biggerstaff, former slave, born in Lexington, KY in 1854, 1896.

 

This work is a series of three photographs taken by James Presley Ball of William Biggerstaff in the year in 1896.  Biggerstaff was a former slave from Lexington, Kentucky who had moved out West to Montana after gaining his freedom.  In 1895, Biggerstaff was accused of murdering the African American prizefighter Dick Johnson in a quarrel over a white woman.[1]  Although Biggerstaff claimed the killing was done in self-defense he was nonetheless found guilty and hung.  In this series of images, Biggerstaff is shown in life, just after his execution and in death.

The first image is a posed portrait of Biggerstaff.  His head rests on his right hand and he gazes solemnly in that direction.  He is dressed formally wearing a suit with a flower pinned to the lapel.  The second image is gruesome and depicts Biggerstaff’s hanging body shortly after his execution.  His face is covered in a mask meant to preserve his dignity in death but which only adds to the horrific nature of the image.  Biggerstaff wears the same coat as in the first picture and is flanked by a Reverend, Victor  Day, as well as the sheriff, Henry Jurgens.  A crowd of onlookers is clearly visible in the back indicating the public nature and spectacle of Biggerstaff’s death.  In the final image, Biggerstaff is shown in his casket.  The angle of the image draws attention to his hand on which a wedding ring is clearly visible.

At first glance this troublesome series of images seems no different than the myriad of lynching images from this time period.  Leigh Raiford describes such images as an essential component of the “reinscribing of the black body as commodity” and a mechanism that “helped extend [a unified white identity] far beyond the town, the county, the state, the South, to include whites nationwide and even internationally.”[2]  While this is certainly true of the vast majority of lynching images several features of this image complicate reading it in such a manner.  The first is the presentation of the three images as opposed to a singular image of a lynched body as was the custom.  Rather the photographer’s decision to use three images, including one showing Biggerstaff while he was still, creates a narrative that individualizes the work.  Typical lynching images present bodies that are often unrecognizable, providing an anonymity that allows for a disassociation from the work that for white audiences at the time played into racist fantasies and for contemporary audiences makes it easier to stomach.  Such dissociation is impossible with this series.  By presenting Bigerstaff’s portrait side-by-side with those of his death, the photographer creates a narrative that contextualizes and brings meaning to Biggerstaff’s life as well as death.  The wedding ring in the final image punctuates this narrative and again forces the viewer to think about the consequences of Biggerstaff’s death on those in his life.

The second characteristic of the photograph that disrupts a conventional reading, is not a feature inherent to the work itself but is in fact the photographer, James Presley (J.P.) Ball.  Ball was born a free man in 1825 in Virginia.  He learned the art of daguerreotype and quickly became extremely successful as a photographer.  As one of the most successful and famous photographers of the latter half of the 20th century, Ball photographed a number of notable people including Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass.[3]  However, in addition to his famous portraits, Ball also documented the horrors of slavery as well as lynchings, publishing a pamphlet addressing the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through the Middle Passage, ” and serving as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. [4]  In addition, Ball was one of the leaders of the movement for William Biggerstaff’s clemency.[5]

Thus, when viewed in this light, these images necessarily take on a different meaning.  If lynching images were commodify the black body for white consumption, as Raiford argues, then what does it mean that this particular set of images was taken by a photographer such as Ball?  To some degree the images of Biggerstaff highlight the relevance of authorship and purpose when it comes to lynching images.  Had the same set of images been taken by a white photographer for purposes more in keeping with most lynching images, they would remain part of the processes described by Raiford, lacking any notion of emancipation.  At the same time, the mere fact that Ball may have intended the images to serve as a call to arms, or at the very least a powerful memorial to Biggerstaff, does not control how they would have been and continue to be interpreted.  Thus, although the typical mechanisms of lynching images are unquestionably disrupted, Ball’s role and the photograph itself cannot be neatly summarized.  The question then, becomes what the role of the art historian ought to be with regards to this image.  Is it enough to merely draw attention to the ways in which interpretations of images are complicated by concepts of authorship, viewership, subject and object?  Such an exercise seems to fall short.


[1] The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

[2] Leigh Raiford, “The Consumption of Lynching Images,” p. 270.  From Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis.

[3] http://www.lonniedawkins.com/JamesPresleyBall.htm#_edn5; (The San Francisco Call, 1896)

The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[4] http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[5] P. 246, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature by Jacqueline Goldsby. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Also: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ball-james-presley-1825-1904, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/amacker/photo/death.html

Pinboard 4

“Town and Country” part of “Cover Girl” Series, Iké Udé, 1994

This image is part of Nigerian artist, photographer and designer Iké Udé’s 1994 “Cover Girl” series in which he depicted himself in a variety of roles on the cover of a number of popular magazines.  In this image Úde chose “Town & Country” self-described as, “America’s premier lifestyle magazine for the affluent.”   In the image, Udé’s face is painted in a pseudo-tribal manner that leaves much of his face white with stripes left unpainted.  His clothing contrasts somewhat with his face as he wears a tweed jacket, collared shirt and an ascot clearly referencing the style of a gentleman.  Four headlines are printed on the work: “The Noble Savage is Dead”; “What is Art?  Experts Disagree”; “Ex-President Admits to Sodomy”; “Investment Tips for the Novice”; and “Yellow Cab & Their Enemies.”  The headlines highlight the ridiculous nature of the “newsworthy” magazine articles while at the same time illuminating the subtext that can be easily masked in the representational space of a magazine cover.

As a whole, the Cover Girl series brings to the fore the ways in which magazine covers serve as a political space.  As such they purport to be reflective of the mainstream, but as Udé points out, the question of whose mainstream and by what measure such mainstreams are created often results in a deliberate practice of inclusion and exclusion.  As Udé writes, ‘“Cover Girl” is neither a metonymy nor an apologue, but an earnest interrogation of institutionalized Caucasian practices of hegemonic right to name first, to colonize, to mis/represent and other exclusionary practices.”  The use of magazine covers for such an interrogation remains relevant even as we begin to move away from the medium in popular culture.  Thus, Udé’s work draws attention to ways in which concepts such as “mainstream” or “public” exude inclusion while effectively serving as forces of exclusion.

Although we have become increasingly aware on a socio-political level of the ways in which oppression, racism and sexism manifest in areas such as poverty, and education, it is easy to overlook the obvious mechanisms by which such notions continue to circulate.  Udé’s work provides a template for continued interrogation by presenting imagery and text that does not explicitly dictate answers, rather it provides a set of contrasts and juxtapositions that bring attention to the form, content and means by which identities are perpetuated, created and must be questioned.

Sources:

http://nideffer.net/proj/Tvc/artbea/15.Tvc.v9.artbeat.Ude%28CG%29.html

http://www.hearst.com/magazines/town–country.php

 

Pinboard #4: Assimilate/Impersonate, Name/Shame, Vote

Nani Teruya

“Nani Teruya says Hawaii shouldn’t be part of the United States. She doesn’t vote because she believes the government is illigitimate. Still, a member of the Hawaiian royal family urged her to use her vote to push for change.”, From CNN’s Change the List Tumblr Project

The Image is a moving gif.  It features an older woman, who looks as though she is of Hawaiian ancestry, standing outside in the of trees shade wearing sun glasses.  She wears peach Aloha print top.  Her black bra strap is falling down her arm, visible on the right side.  She is wearing a necklace, something we notice as the gif creates a movement in her hand, over and over again as though she is frantically scratching herself just below her neck. She is saying something, but her lips are unreadable.  The mechanical loop of the gift couple with the movement of her mouth makes it looks as though she is doing some nervous lip motion followed by a howl.  The text on top of the image says “CONVINCE ME TO VOTE!!!/#CTL3” as a piece of something moves up and down right next to the C.

This image is a part of a series started by CNN called the change list.  CNN describes the project on the Tumblog as a way to  “Help [CNN] bring change to places and issues that need it most. Our current effort: Bumping Hawaii off the bottom of the United States voter turnout list. This CNN experiment is led by John D. Sutter.”  Limited information is provided about Nani Teruya.  The most important information is that she is choosing not to vote, this despite urging from her royal family, this, despite it being illegal to vote if you believe Hawaii is illegally occupied.  That last part is not part of the story or the image.
The inclusion of the larger narrative, the one that includes the international discussion of the status of the Hawaiian kingdom, is placed under the title “Why Hawaii should be more like… Iraq?”  This titling, coupled with the positioning of the photographs (and the Iraq story) of putting the people against royalty, and the presentation in the gif of Nani Teruya as impersonating the wrong model, by not voting, and moving as though animal is something I find troubling.