Category Archives: Race

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.

Pinboard Entry #5: Post-Race Covergirl

Ann Coulter Mugged Book Cover 2012

On her book cover, Republican commentator Ann Coulter appears to lean on the black band at the bottom of the book, which serves as her nameplate and also establishes her status as a bestselling author. Her blonde hair falls over her shoulders and chest, which are exposed by her tight, sleeveless dress. Her gold cross catches the light, and she gives the camera a tight smile. By all accounts, this is a glamor shot which would seem more appropriate for a memoir or a book about personal hygiene than one on race.

Mugged, which is Coulter’s eighth book to date, revises history by arguing that liberals have not historically been the champions of racial equality in the United States. The book was released in late September, and Coulter’s subsequent promotional television appearances clearly establish that she intended for it to have an outcome on the election. In addition to arguing that President Obama’s election in 2008 was more a consequence of white liberal guilt than a milestone in American political history, she attempts to show that Obama lost support among African Americans during his first administration. Coulter’s book is  an stunning example of what Bill Maher calls the “Republican Bubble”—an alternative universe where “facts” need have no basis in reality—and many public figures, including Maher and Whoopi Goldberg, have called her out on this.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, this book can be judged by its cover, which betrays the  insincerity of Coulter’s inquiry into race in the United States. The juxtapositioning of her title, “Mugged” in bold black typeface, which conjures images of urban violence, over her blond, blue-eyed head shot is a deliberate attempt to claim that white people are the victims—of decades of “racial demagoguery,” as her subtitle bears out. By casting her discussion of race in America in her own dyed, dieted and cross-bearing image, Coulter is targeting her audience: white conservatives who may be sympathetic to her spurious argument that racial inequality exists only in the imagination and discourse of liberal America.

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 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 Entry #6: Black History Painting

Kerry James Marshall
Portrait of John Punch (Angry Black Man 1646)
source: artslant.com

In this disarming three-quarter portrait, the hulking figure of John Punch seemingly sways to the left against a black background. He is clad in a bulky tunic with an upright white collar that offsets the intense blackness of his face. His arms are pulled behind his back, indicating that he is not a free man, yet he confronts the viewer with a stare emanating from narrowed eyes. An errant lock of hair pulls to the far left of the frame. A red band runs across the top of the painting—the sole injection of bright color in this dark picture.

Punch is regarded as the first African to spend his life in servitude in the United States. The date included in the title of the painting, 1646, represents the year that he was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a State court. Punch is one of several historical black figures that the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall  has memorialized as part of a larger effort to break up the supremacy of white figures on the walls of art museums. For Marshall, the fact that museums are dominated by portraits, history paintings and genre scenes picturing white people is evidence that painting is hardly a finished, outmoded media.

In addition to his critique of the over-representation of white subjects, Marshall uses paintings like this to highlight other ways that the revered styles and schools of the Western art canon have privileged whiteness  For instance, Marshall takes on Malevich’s white on white Suprematist Painting, proving that black paint has just as much potential for finely hewn gradations. In the Punch portrait, black skin is distinct from black hair which is distinct from a black background. Marshall’s body of work not only infuses the canon of Western art with a much needed constituency of blackness, it also challenges the assumption that whiteness is the norm rather than another racial category.

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

 

Image Blog Entry #2: Photography as Double Agent

Thomas Eakins African-American Girl Nude Reclining on a Couch ca. 1880

In this gelatin silver print taken in 1880 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), a young African American girl poses nude on a divan. She props her head up on her elbow, a pose that both enables her to gaze directly at the viewer and exposes her tiny, prepubescent body, which occupies so little space on the couch. Her pose also creates a curve that complements the shape of the couch—where it dips, her buttocks pops. Her stare is direct but also glazed, as if indicating that holding this pose, which puts her folded right arm at a very odd angle and foreshortens her neck, is producing strain and discomfort. The contrast of her unblemished skin and the busy pattern of the couch upholstery heightens the intensity of her nakedness.

Even to my modern eyes, which are less sensitive to nudity than a 19th-century spectators would have been, this photograph is disturbing. It is, for instance, not the kind of image I want to have open on my computer when other people can see my screen. Even in the privacy of my own office, I feel discomfited when looking at the image, as though I am doing something illicit—specifically, looking at child pornography. Upon reflection, I think I feel this way for many reasons: because the girl is so young; because she looks so vulnerable; because she is black; because I am white; because I know that Thomas Eakins, the artist who staged and took the photograph, was much older, male and white.

We know Eakins to have been an iconoclast with positions on sexuality that got him into hot water. Eakins had an illustrious academic pedigree, training in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme and serving of the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when he returned to the States, but he was fired in 1886 after he allowed coed attendance to nude modeling classes. Regardless of Eakins’s own sexual orientation, which has been put under the magnifying glass by biographers like William S. McFeeley, his many paintings and photographs of naked young men in the studio or loitering on rocks and leaping into swimming holes have been read in the context of homosexuality in recent shows like the controversial Hide/Seek. Despite, or perhaps because of his unorthodox deviations from the norms of American academic painting, Eakins was really the first 19th century American painter to get hagiographic treatment in the 20th-century, with Whitney curator Lloyd Goodrich publishing a two-volume work on Eakins in 1933 (a project that was initially bankrolled by Goodrich’s friend and Eakins enthusiast Reginald Marsh).

Eakins was also one of the first American artists to integrate photography into his repertoire. By the 1880s, Eakins had begun working with a wooden view camera using  the platinum print process to create photographs like African-American Girl Nude Reclining on a Couch. Using his students at the Pennsylvania Academy as models, Eakins composed a compendium of figure studies, taken of subjects both in costume and in the nude.  Just as Louis Agassiz commissioned his slave daguerreotypes in the service of science, Eakins photographed nude youths in his academy studio in the name of art.

Nude African-American Girl on a Couch was thus part of a larger project to capture and study the human body, but as we have discussed in relation to Aleta Ringlero’s study of  photographs of Native American women, scientifically motivated  19th-century photographs had crossover potential as pornographic pleasure objects. Ringlero argues that in the photographs of Will Soule and others, naked Native American subjects exhibit a vocabulary of poses that are inspired by the tradition of the nude in Western art, which were presumably designed and imposed by the photographer. The manner in which the nude African American girl in Eakin’s photograph is splayed before the viewer is likewise reminiscent of the classic Odalisque, only unlike Titian’s Venus  or Manet’s Olympia Eakins’s girl is exposed to the maximum degree. The official objective of Eakin’s nude figure studies may have been to see the human body in action in a wide vocabulary of poses, but his choices of which bodies and which poses is significant. Could he have been unaware of the sexualizing operation he was performing on his young African American subject by having her act out the pose associated with the goddess of love? The effect (intended or not) of choosing this pose is a photograph whose illicit erotic potential is thinly veiled by its academic objectives, making it another exhibit in 19th century photography’s character as a double agent serving both science and lust.

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 Entry #3: In the Flesh

In his 1995 painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, Lucian Freud (1922-2011) captures “Big Sue Tilley” in voluptuous repose on a couch in his studio. Light and shadow play on her ample mounds of white flesh, creating a liquid pool of pink, white and orange tones that flow across her body. Her eyes are closed as she cups her breast with her right hand and clutches the couch’s back with her left arm. Freud painted Tilley from a perspective that puts the viewer slightly above her, so that we are peering down onto Tilley while she is napping, unawares.

Lucian Freud
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (Big Sue Tilley)
1995

“Big Sue Tilley,” an employee of England’s Department for Work and Pensions who met Freud through a mutual friend, recalls that she often dozed off while posing during the nine months that she modeled for the artist in the mid-1990s. Freud, an artist who is associated with a postwar group of British painters that also included Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, often called the School of London, found inspiration for his psychological, hyper-detailed portraiture in earlier 20th-century movements like the New Objectivity. In addition to contemporary influences, the 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres fascinated Freud, who often described his painting and their fleshy exuberance “Ingresesque.” This painting sold for $33.6 million in May 2008, establishing a world record for the highest price paid for a work by a living artist.

Freud took realism to the nth degree, focusing on every wrinkle, follicle and roll of fat that his sitters brought into his studio. He once said, “I want my painting to be as flesh. For me, the painting is the person and I want its effect on me to be the same as the effect of flesh.” The pictorial effect of Freud’s eagle eye, painterly realism is that everything becomes sensuous, from Big Sue’s girth to the fine wood grain of the floor to what is left on the disused upholstery on his studio couch. Freud’s sitter (sleeper) and her inanimate surroundings become a harmonious aggregate of surface and implied texture: a visual cornucopia of skins.