Category Archives: Narrative

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.

Pinboard Entry #7: Desiring the Other

Kent Monkman
Icon for a New Empire
2007

In the interior of this artist’s studio, strange things are afoot. The sculptor has laid down his chisel, for the Native American on horseback he is sculpting has come alive. Outfitted in fringed hide pants and beaded moccasins, the artist stands on his tip toes and plunges his body into the embrace of his subject, who is in living color only from the waist up. Above them a mutant cupid aims his arrow. The lovers are framed by Indian artifacts such as arrows, feathers, a fringed hide shirt and a mask as well as a small scale model of the life-size sculpture that is underway.

This is one of contemporary artist Kent Monkman’s critiques of representations of Native Americans in Western art. An artist of Cree ancestry who is widely exhibited in Canada, Monkman revisits famous images of native North American peoples and landscapes, altering their details to explicitly reveal layers of desire and violence that were previously only implied. In this piece, Monkman is not only playing off of the long tradition of studio scenes that are fraught with unconsummated (at least pictorially) ententes between artists and their models in Western art history (like this and this), he is also referencing a specific work from the American canon: James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail. A sculptor trained in Chicago but born and raised in South Dakota, Fraser began sculpting Native American subjects after the 1893 World’s Colombian exhibition, where he encountered a plethora of Native American imagery.

Monkman’s painting is a critique of white artists like Fraser, who from the second quarter of the mid-19th century onward became increasingly interested in depicting Native Americans in photography, painting and sculpture. Monkman interprets the desire that fueled that process very literally by casting the artist and subject as lovers. While sexuality may have played a role, the attraction to Native American subjects had many other dimensions as well, from the imperialist (see the naturalist expedition art of Titan Ramsay Peale) to the opportunistic (see the Indian Gallery of George Catlin) to the primitivist (see the Amerika series by Marsden Hartley).

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 #3: Life & Language of the Photograph: Eugenic “Family Album” (p. 276)

Page 367, The Crisis, December 1935

Page 367, Featuring and Image of George and Lucille Brantley The Crisis, December 1935

Crisis Cover: Aug-Sep 1951

Lucille Brantley, Crisis Cover: Aug-Sep 1951

In December, 1935, “The Crisis” annual children’s number, amongst Political Cartoons about Texas Lynchings, Ethiopia, and Educational Inequalities, there’s a studio portrait of a little girl and little boy sitting side by side (367).  The caption names them as “George and Lucille Brantley/St. Louis, Mo.”  George, in a sailor inspired outfit, smiles eyes wide, looking directly at the the camera. Lucille, in a dress with short lace sleeves, looks slightly to the right.  Sixteen years later, in August-September 1951 issue we encounter Lucille again.  No longer a child, she is the cover model for the Fortieth Annual Education Number. The biographical information explains that she is the daughter of G.D. Brantley, Principal of Sumner high school, who earned her M.S. degree in June of that year.

The early interrogation of The Crisis in Willis’ “Exposure” and the accompanying quote labelling it as “a kind of eugenic ‘family album’” (275) made me feel a sense of pride and confusion.  While the first photo is one I wasn’t familiar with, I’ve intimately known the second photo most of my life.  I know that in the photos Lucille is 5, and 21.  If you ask her if she remembers sitting for the cover, her answer is “Hell no!! It might just be my graduation photo from grad school” [1].  I know the narrative of her life outside of the photo because she is my Grandmother.  A blown up copy of her cover graces the walls of my grandparents’ house.

The tension of photograph as larger social marker (aspirations/types) vs. family memento helps me understand the multiple lives and languages inherent in photographs of human subjects.  As artifact, the Crisis is digitally available through Google. These photographs are available to anyone with a reasonable internet connection.  Without this action having been done, I would have never seen the photograph of my grandmother with her brother when they were children.  Nor would I have learned about the actions and photographs of their father that the Crisis chronicled throughout his career. For me the Crisis is a family album.
1. Phone Interview, October 26, 2012

Colonial Collection/ Context and Narrative (Pinboard #1)

Fred Wilson "Colonial Collection", 1990

Fred Wilson is an artist of African, American Indian and European descent and was born in 1954 in The Bronx, NY.  He attended Purchase College, State University of New York where he received a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree in 1976.  Wilson is best known for his site-specific museum installations and first rose to national prominence with his 1992 exhibition for the Maryland Historical Society, “Mining the Museum.”  In this and similar works, Wilson uses objects either not normally on display or typically displayed in a different fashion and juxtaposes them in a way that “alters their traditional meanings or interpretations.”[1]

“Colonial Collection” is part of the 1990 exhibition “Rooms with a View: The Struggle Between Cultural Content and the Context of Art” an installation in which Wilson took two works from 30 artists and then arranged them in three different rooms- a regular gallery space, a white cube and a room designed to look like an ethnographic museum.  This work comes from the ethnographic space. “Colonial Collection” features seven African masks hung on a rust colored wall.  Around each mask, Wilson wrapped French and British flags which cover the mouth, eyes and nose on the different masks.  Beneath the masks is a glass display case which features insect vitrines, a jawbone, Mylar labels, wood and glass vitrines and Harper’s lithographs depicting punitive expeditions between the Zulus and the British and the Ashanti and the British.[2]

Although the masks are trade masks and Wilson had the vitrines in the glass display box made specifically for the exhibit, Wilson’s presentation of the objects under “museum lighting” and within an ethnographic space led many visitors to believe they were seeing traditional ethnographic (or authentic) objects.  The work demonstrates the ways in which museums anesthetize and control the presentation of objects making them “hostages to the museum.”[3]  The masks are shown as objects, historical and yet devoid of context; they present the idea of a culture while obscuring the realities of how the objects came to be there in the first place.   Thus, Wilson demonstrates how context can control, co-opt or even create the narrative of a particular work.  In doing so, he raises not only the question of whether the meaning that’s being is correct, but also of who has the right to convey meaning.   Such questions arise most frequently in regards to ethnographic objects but are equally relevant contemporary art history.  When discussion art at the intersections of race and gender it is necessary to bear in mind not only what but whose story is being told.

Gaze Control (Pinboard #2)

A warrior woman, near Kambole

A warrior woman, near Kambole

I shared this photograph in class, but it has stuck in my head since then so I decided to use it as a pinboard post to continue thinking on it in conversation with what we’ve seen in the course so far. The photograph is of a “A warrior woman, near Kambole; insisted on fight with the men” according to the caption. While we do not know much other than the location (the date and name of the photographer are unknown), we do know that at some point the photograph was in the hands of an English speaker, and was probably taken by an English photographer as Zambia was part of the English colony of Rhodesia. The photograph belongs to a larger collection entitled “Scenes of daily life of natives and a foreign missionary in Malawi” (where it states that the collection is from not before 1862.

I offer this image as an intervention. We speak so often of gender, feminism, the male gaze etc, but frame it as only a western phenomenon. In contrast to how we imagine gender and the gaze in Lacanian terms, this image fights the ability of the gaze to control the Other. While this women is placed in the context of colonization, and marked as female, she is playing with gender. As such, her very existence and her gender play make it difficult for her to be marked as a sexual object. While the caption present might have been written in jest (I can imagine it with a “haha” at the end), the way her gaze holds the camera, and the expression on her face, accented by the reflective flecks of some kind of powder make the viewer of the photograph look back at her, and see her in a position of power (over her own body and life) even as she exists in a moment of historical oppression.

These Shoes Were Made for Posing (Pinboard #1)

Louis XIV (1638–1715), by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701)This portrait painting of Louis XIV of France was painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701.  The portrait shows Louis XIV standing in all his finery, positioned in such a way that his red heeled shoes are visible from both the front and the side.  The pose is one that we might consider very feminine by todays standards, but was intended to do two things, 1, it showed off Louis XIV’s legs, which history has led me to believe he was very proud of, and 2, show off his clean red heeled shoes.  Red heeled shoes have recently been in the news to the point that this painting was in Forbes magazine online with the following caption:

This 1701 portrait of Louis XIV shows the Sun King dressed in lavish robes — and red-heeled shoes. Red was a very important color for the monarchy: Sumptuary laws, as well as the high cost of red dyes, meant that you had to be rich and powerful to wear it, and red heels were worn by the monarchy since the early 1600s. But they were especially dear to Louis XIV: He passed an edict claiming only nobility could wear them. According to historian Philip Mansel, the painted heels showed that nobles did not dirty their shoes. They also demonstrated that their wearers were “always ready to crush the enemies of the state at their feet.” Yikes. [1]

This painting, and this extra bit of information from Forbes, helps us frame one of the trends we saw as we were looking at the paintings in the French academy, namely, the inclusion of a bit of toe if not the entire shoe in the French paintings full body portrait and market scene paintings.   Knowing this painting, and the signification of the red shoes helps re-examine what is being shown in paintings such as Aubry’s “Les adieux à la nourrice”.

Another component of this painting that is relevant to the course is what is the portrait saying or showing about the sitter?  Louis XIV was well known at the time.  However, when I look at this painting in dialogue with the portraits of women and women painters we’ve seen, I do not see the same signifiers of family and home life represented.  While his family is well known, and the fleur-de-lis and his shoes serve to mark him as royalty, there are no indications of his marital status or any hints of him having children or great grandchildren.  I would almost say there is no signification pointing towards anything other than his ruling.  The painting says he exists and is, because he is, which is sort of the point of royalty.  At the very least, the painting makes it clear that he is not modest.  This portrait exists to do the exact opposite of that.  Rather than shun opulence, it is a celebration of it from the bottom of his red heeled shoes to his luxurious black wig.

1. http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mkm45fmhmg/louis-xiv-of-france-posing-in-red-heeled-shoes-2/