Category Archives: Photography

Chapter Entry: Deborah Willis, “Exposure”

Deborah Willis’ essay “Exposure” focuses on the years 1942-1968, a period of extraordinary change in American society. As Willis explains, it was also a period of exceptional growth in black image-making, and a time of distinction for American news photographers. Willis explains her essay as an exploration of the “social conditions governing the act of being photographed and decoding of the photographs.” [1] I interpret “Exposure” as achieving two ends: First, Willis describes the importance of photographs in African American communities during this period, and suggests that the creation and dissemination of photographs fostered individual identities and forged community bonds. Second, she explores the role of photography in the civil rights movement, suggesting that the images – especially images made by news photographers – were crucial to the formation of a true political collective. These twin investigations provide a brief but comprehensive look at the role of photography and photographers in the civil rights movement.

Willis suggests that “what we imagine about this period is meditated through the insights of the photographers” who committed moments from key events to film. [2] These events were local and national, personal and political, individual and collective. The photographs, Willis states, represented the “conscience of this country.” [3] The result was a “collective visual memory” that persists today. [4] “Exposure” explores the development of this memory; to enhance this exploration, Willis and the editors, Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, use plays of omission and inclusion to trigger the reader’s memory and reinforce the essay’s arguments.

In African-American communities, photographers celebrated progress and documented historic changes. Family photographs were construed as both progressive and historical: the publication of baby photos in the NAACP’s Crisis was both a statement of “family” pride, with the family defined as all black Americans, and a historical record of, and argument for, the continuous improvement of the social, political and economic situation of African-Americans. Willis argues that this created a “visual taxonomy” – a vocabulary and syntax that could be used to read (and, perhaps, author) images of black Americans. [5] Baby pictures, which were published frequently in Crisis, did not merely elicits coos and grins; these babies were, in W.E. Dubois’ words, evidence of “a large and larger class of well-nourished, healthy, beautiful children among the colored people.” [6] These images were meant to be enjoyed, but they were also meant to instruct viewers – such is the nature of evidence.

The turning point in Willis’ essay – the shift from a focus on photography’s role in building individual identities and community norms to a broader exploration of photography’s role as a catalyst for social change – is a discussion of Ernest Withers’ photographs of Emmett Till. These photos do not accompany the essay. This omission is a brilliant twist: by avoiding reproductions of Withers’ photographs, Willis and the editors ask us to recall the images. The prompt is productive for many readers, who will be able to summon the horrifying photographs immediately, underscoring Willis’ point: these images are burned into our individual minds and imprinted on the American psyche.

Willis asserts that photographers in this period were witnesses who crafted “a visual language” to “testify” about “their individual and collective experience.” [7] Photography galvanized young people, motivated cultural change, and helped define the civil rights movement. Images helped messages coalesce, and allowed civil rights leaders to develop a different “visual taxonomy” that described atrocity in stark detail. These photographers were, by and large, white and employed by major news outlets. However, they were also deeply embedded in the civil rights movement, and often saw themselves as activists. A discussion of two images in the chapter will help explain this dual role.

Charles Moore was raised in Alabama, the son of a Baptist preacher. He trained in fashion photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, but was hired as a staff photographer for the The Montgomery Advertiser and The Montgomery Journal after graduation. Moore’s Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 [below] is an icon image of the civil rights movement.

Charles Moore, Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

At the center of the frame, three figures cluster together. They face away from the camera, towards glass doors hung with wooden blinds. A bright vertical line shoots into the frame from the right side, ending its trajectory at the lower spine of the tallest figure. The image is marred by a profusion of white flecks that are most concentrated in the upper right corner. Moore’s photograph records the use of high-pressure water hoses on peaceful demonstrators. The doors they face are shuttered, allowing those inside to turn a “blind” eye to the proceedings. Spray from the water hose, knocks the protestors into the building, but they do not cower; the man on the far right, who is taking the brunt of the water’s force in his back, stands strong, bracing himself against the building. The white flecks are spray from the jets, suffusing the atmosphere with water and drenching the group with residual moisture. Critics have suggested that the Moore’s decision to leave the hose operator unseen “implicate[d] the whole nation.” [8] Legislators and historians have credited images such as Birmingham Riots with fostering public support for the civil rights movement.

Willis quotes photographer Danny Lyon, using his images and his words as testimony. Lyon, a Brooklyn-born, self-taught proponent of New Journalism, became fully embedded with his subjects, a participant-witness. Lyon explains that he operated with the blessing of the SNCC, and was frequently directed to his images by James Forman, the executive secretary of the organization. [9] Lyon’s quote, printed under his photograph, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962 [below], reminds us that these photographs are not just evidence; they are also arguments. Water fountains were a symbol of the economic, educational and social disadvantages of blacks under Jim Crow laws.

Danny Lyons, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962

Lyon’s image of two water fountains, a large one for “whites” and a tiny one for “colored,” is both a record of a fact and a argument against the social conditions of that fact. Lyons’ matter-of-fact representational style tells us what is so, but its damns its subject: this is wrong on its face.

In the last third of the essay, Willis explores the impact of these images. She credits Moore and Lyon’s photographs with earning the investment of the American people, global attention to the civil rights movement, and critical changes in the legislation and enforcement of equality. Willis’ essay exposes the critical role played by news photographers in the success of the civil rights movement, giving these overlooked activists due attention by explaining the importance of their images. The magic of the essay is rooted in its demonstrative qualities. Willis, Fusco and Wallis do not merely tell us; instead, Willis evocative descriptions, the editors’ omissions and inclusions, and the photographs themselves combine to show us her argument.

I wish that the curators had been able to include some images of “life in the margins” – Willis’ description of images of black prosperity. “Exposure” is punctuated with searing news photographs, but Willis’ captivating introductory discussion focuses on more quotidian images. The richness of her scholarship is due, in part, to this comprehensive approach. A visual juxtaposition of the gentle and the jarring would have greatly enhanced this reader’s experience, extending the demonstrative qualities of the piece to its first third, as well.

Also, I wish that Willis had been able to devote time and space to analysis of the changing role of the photographs discussed. The function of these images has multiplied over the decades. The photographs were originally news items – reportage of important current events of the day. Over the decades, museum curators, art collectors, historians, and observers have added further meaning and purpose to these photographs. Lyons’ image of a water fountain is no longer proof of an existing situation; instead, it is a palimpsest of information, with multiple coterminous purposes and meanings. Today, it may be a record of the past, an art object to be collected, and an artifact to be displayed. I would love to know Willis’ thoughts on the sale of these images to collectors of “fine art” photography. Also, I would love to hear her thoughts on the display of these images as art rather than news. I think her take on the transmutation of these images – their acquisition of multiple identities – would be fascinating.

[1] Deborah Willis, “Exposure,” in in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 275.

[2]Id.

[3] Id., 281.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., 276.

[6] Id., 278.

[7] Id., 275.

[8] Douglas Martin, “Charles Moore, Rights-Era Photographer, Dies at 79” New York Times, March 15, 2010.

[9] Willis, 279.

 

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.

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.

Glenn Ligon, Self Portrait

Glenn Ligon, self portrait exaggerating my black features / self-portrait exaggerating my white features, 1998, silkscreen on canvas

 

Glenn Ligon is a New York based Conceptual artist.  He has been active since the late 1980s.  Ligon works across media, from sculpture to digital art.  His work examines the intricacies of racial, sexual and gender identity, as well as the social experience of those identities.  His work is highly citational. His first independent showing featured an untitled piece with the text “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, from Zora Neale Hurston.  His Self Portrait  piece featured in this post is in direct conversation/cites Adrian Piper’s own Self Portrait.  However, unlike Piper’s piece, Ligon chose to not exaggerate actual features and instead attempted to create identical photographs.

Glenn Ligon’s Self Portrait, 1998, is a diptych of two seemingly identical portraits of himself.  He is dressed in a button up light colored shirt, collar open, denim jeans, a belt, and a pair of tennis shoes. His arms relaxed at his side though his hands are cupped.  He looks directly at the camera, head slightly tilted to the right, with a neutral expression on his face.  The image is in black and white.  The caption on the left panel reads “Self-portrait exaggerating my black features” in contrast to the right panel’s “Self-portrait exaggerating my white features”.  He stands against a light colored background that meets a darker colored floor.  I start this out by saying that the images are seemingly identical because when I first saw them, I did read the black features image as darker than the white features image.  When I realized the images were supposed to be identical I found myself confused.  Perhaps I was haunted by Ligon’s words, in one of his untitled pieces, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”.  In the version of this Diptych that I most often encounter (above), the flash on the panel exaggerating black features is brighter, so bright in fact, that it washes out the shirt he is wearing.

The intended meaning of this diptych seems to be to place the viewer in their own head. This seems to be a critique of Piper’s piece that creates an imagined visual difference.  Ligon asks us to contemplate what marks a body as having black features instead of white.  Additionally, the piece seems to be calling attention to the mixedness inherit to the American version of the black body.  The black body in America is the relationship between blackness and whiteness. The black  body that defines both, in as much as whiteness is defined against the black body, but also embodies both, as it is a body that contains both.  Going back to one of Ligon’s other citations, Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, she states “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief” [1].  It’s a little thing that marks the silliness of defining blackness in a US context even amongst black people.

One of the unintended messages that exists in this photograph for me goes back to that initial reaction to the photos, the place where I was asking, “why does the black features image appear darker?”.  The brightness of the light, and the shadows created by the variation in use of the flash speaks to Sekula’s shadow archive:

“We can speak then of a generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain.4″ This archive contains subordinate, territorialized archives: archives whose semantic interdependence is normally obscured by the “coherence” and “mutual exclusivity” of the social groups registered within each” [2].

By marking the two photographs with a textual racial signifier, Ligon places the viewer in a performative space where they are playing with their own view of race with his body as the stage.  He is taking away the obscureness the we normally associate with reading whiteness and bringing it front and center.  I cannot help but wonder how many people were taken aback upon viewing these two version of the photograph and seeing the darkness in the black image like I did, and, instead of looking past the features on his face, the place where we are compelled to look, simply walked away, not realizing the beautiful shadow play on his shirt, a shadow that highlights whiteness and blackness inasmuch as the photos are in black and white.  We are reading the image being about race, when it is a photograph,  a thing created by light.  The features of the light are heightened when displayed in black and white, where all differentiation in color exists on a gradient line between the two.

1. Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it feels to be colored me.” (1928): 152-55.
2. Sekula, Allan. “The body and the archive.” October 39 (1986): 3-64.

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

 

Standing for Attention

 

Vanessa Beecroft, VB 39: U.S. Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, digital chromogenic print, 1999

Vanessa Beecroft’s VB 39 is a photograph made during a performance created at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1999.

Beecroft (b. 1969) is an Italian-born artist working in New York. Her large-scale, voyeuristic performances, which are highly repetitive in their form and content, focus on the importance of the encounters between model, artists, and audience. Scholars have suggested that these performances situate the models as “something between an object and an image.” [1] Beecroft’s work recalls tableaux vivants, the “living pictures” popular among nineteenth century aristocracy. Her performances are created for specific locations; each is informed by and remains entrenched in the social, historical, and political conditions of its setting. She typically uses female models; her earliest works “featured almost identically dressed women in wigs, either standing, sitting or moving in slow formation.” [2] Starting in 1999 with VB 39, Beecroft began to explore androcentric performances. [3]

In VB 39, Beecroft’s first all-male performance, 16 Navy SEALs from Naval Special Warfare Command in San Diego, CA alternately stood at attention or at ease in the Farris Galleries of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. In a photograph taken during the performance, sixteen identically dressed men stand in a choreographed arrangement in a stark white room. The men’s clothes are similarly white. All the men have neatly cropped hair, and most are clean-shaven, although three sport trim moustaches. One participant stands in front of the larger group, which is lined up five across, three rows deep. Each man adopts the same posture: legs spread hip-width, back straight, shoulders back, arms bent at a forty-five degree angle, hands clasped behind back, eyes forward.

We recognize the men as members of the United States Navy by their distinctive uniforms. As the wife and daughter of former naval officers, I look at this photograph and see information that might be lost on viewers unaffiliated with the Navy. At a distance – visual or critical – the soldiers’ outfits appear identical, but those familiar with military semiotics can decode each man’s rank and educational history through the variations in their attire. The men are not wearing their “covers” (hats); covers are worn exclusively outside, never inside. The SEALs wear “summer whites”, not full dress uniforms. This suggests a measure of informality within Beecroft’s rigidly constructed performance. The uniforms are clearly differentiated by a collection of status markers. White or black shoes indicate whether a soldier is, respectively, an officer or enlisted. Similarly, epaulets signify an officer, while a sleeve insignia marks enlisted. Seal pins, jump wings, and war ribbons further differentiate the men by rank.

The number of soldiers – 16 – is also significant; it represents the number of members in a SEAL platoon. Further, the models chosen embody the actual composition of platoon: although this may not be a specific platoon, the correct number of soldiers are present in the right distribution of ranks; thus, the group could be a functioning SEAL platoon. The group comprises non-commissioned officers, including 1st class petty officers, 2nd class petty officers, and chief petty officers, one line officer, and one limited duty officer.

VB 39 explores individual and collective identities. The soldiers’ uniforms signify the organizational norms established by the Navy and the subsumption of the individual to the institution. The uniform also suggests adherence to traditional norms masculinity, which require conformity from individual men. However, the soldiers’ status markers and physical attributes – age, hair color, skin color, facial hair, musculature, tattoos – are also a set of coded, legible signs. Despite the homogeneity imposed by the Navy uniform and Beecroft’s performance, each man has a personal narrative, an individual history. The standardization of their dress and behavior in formation reinscribe the importance of homogeneity in the collective identity, while the unique visual attributes of each soldier remind the viewer of each man’s suppressed individuality.

Christine Ross suggests that VB 39 is “masculinizing the female role of to-be-looked-at-ness.” [5] As in her earlier works, VB 39 objectifies its participants. Like the lithe fashion models populating most of Beecroft’s performances, Navy SEALs are popular sex symbols. [6] In VB 39, as in all of her works, Beecroft plays on the disjuncture of collective identity (from which sexual appeal is born) and the individual identity (which might actually spoil desire) and the effects of this rupture on the viewer’s attraction to the performers. Thus, despite a shift from female to male performers, Beecroft’s choice of subject falls neatly in line with her prior works.

[1] Francis Summers, “Vanessa Beecroft”, Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, November 16, 2007, http://www.groveart.com/

[2] Summers

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanessa_Beecroft

[4] Summers

[5] Christine Ross, The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (University Of Minnesota Press, 2006) 213, n14.

[6] Annys Shin, “SEALs go from superhero to sex symbol”, Washington Post, May 8, 2011.

 

Pinboard #4: Postcards from the Exotic

This a hand-colored photograph of a river baptism. In the center of the image, two preachers clad in dark red robes attend to a woman in a white dress and bonnet, who is submerged in the water up to her shoulders. To the right, there are several clusters of people, including a group of faithfuls who are waiting with their hands crossed in front of their bodies for their baptism to take place. To the left are two boats, which are conceivably bringing new participants to the ceremony. Crowds of African Americans, several people deep, line the banks of the river. Red lettering printed on the image indicate that this “Genuine Negro Baptism” took place near Norfolk, Virginia in 1918.

I. Stern, Genuine Negro Baptising near Norfolk, Va., 1905–10. International Center of Photography

This object was on view in the International Center for Photography’s 2011  “Take me to the Water” exhibition of vintage postcards of river baptisms in the Mid-West and the South between 1880 and 1930. As the ICP web site explains, religious fundamentalism was widespread in these decades, which brought tremendous social and economic changes to these regions. Postcards of river baptisms circulated both through those individuals who participated in the events, as well as via those who attended as spectators or merely knew of them and saw them as curious spectacles. For river baptisms were a kind of theater that satisfied not only the faithful, but also tourists in search of evidence of homegrown traditions that were at once authentic and exotic.

I wanted to present this image in relation to the horrifying lynching photographs that we encountered through Leigh Raiford’s essay. This postcard is an example of another kind of imagery that commodified black bodies. However, it performs this operation not in a register of violence, but rather one of exotic spirituality that appealed to white consumers of river baptism postcards. The title of the postcard, “Genuine Negro Baptism” captures how river baptisms featuring black subjects were addressed to such beholders as exhibits of authenticity. The postcards, like lynching photographs, provided a vantage point from which to dominate the black body through objectification and primitivization.

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