Tag Archives: identity

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.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

 

Imagen de Yagul

Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yagul. 1973. Source: Artstor

In an open Zapotec tomb in the ancient city of Yagul, Mexico, Mendieta’s naked body lays within the formation of rocks that encapsulate her. Her body is covered with white flowers and green leaves, whose density increases around her chest and face, making it difficult to discern her facial features amongst the cluster of flowers. Mendieta leaves the viewer with only the outer contours of her body, arms and legs to discern. This image, Imagen de Yagul, is the first in a series of silhouette portraits in which Mendieta traces the outline of her body in different locations between Mexico and Iowa. This particular piece differs from the other works in the series, in that her body is fully present here, rather than just represented as an ephemeral silhouette that marks where she once was. These locations are significant as they trace a personal journey between places that she identifies with. On a trip to Oaxaca she identified with the region’s “mixture of indigenous and European cultures with her own hybrid Cuban heritage “and she developed an appreciation for pre-Colombian iconography [1].

Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States with her sister at the age of twelve. As an artist, she plays a large role in the history of feminist art. Her work crossed multiple categories including land art, body art, and performance and her work addresses the ideological struggle of gender and race. Mendieta herself described her work as “earth-body work” and “earth-body sculptures”[1]. Her early work as a student at the University of Iowa addressed issues of gender formation, as in the performance Facial Hair Transplants (1972). In 1992 an exhibition featuring Mendieta’s widower (and accused and acquitted of her murder), Carl Andre, sparked a protest outside of the Guggenheim Museum on the exclusion of female artists in exhibitions and lack of women in powerful positions in art institutions. Protestors held signs reading, “Where is Ana Mendieta?” My own decision to write about the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta is an expression of interest in addressing the underrepresentation of minority women in Gender and Art and the lack of focus on female artists who address issues of race more specifically in this publication.

Jane Blocker describes Imagen de Yagul as dealing with the “themes of death and rebirth staged in an earthen, womb-like cavity. Here, the category woman is sanctioned by the first woman, by Mother Earth, by the biology of childbirth.”[2] Mendieta uses her body as a channel to address issues of life, death, and regeneration, themes that she alluded to throughout her career. [3] The female body is represented in unison with nature, as creator and created. It is from her body that flowers sprout and flourish, symbolism that could be interpreted as a sign of fertility. Also significant is that Mendieta positions her body inside of a Meso-American tomb in Yagul, not far from the ancient city of Mitla that was designated in Zapotec culture as the place for the dead to rest.

What I find most intriguing about Mendieta’s work in general and about this piece specifically is the manner in which it identifies with a geographic identity. Ana Mendieta, represented as a Cuban-American artist, spent her early childhood in Cuba and was exiled to the United States, where she spent years bouncing from foster homes before settling in Iowa. Below, she speaks of her experience and feelings of displacement and the urge to connect to the earth:

I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed with the feeling of having been cast from the womb. My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source. [4]

Not identifying with one nation, Mendieta ventured to form a connection to the earth. In channeling Meso-American civilization, she was connecting to her roots through contact with the land, which created a deeper connection to the body. This physical involvement in the creation of her work is inseparable from the work itself. The strength in her works lies in its power to relate to and its ability to interact with the viewer. That the viewer cannot make out her face in this portrait allows for one to automatically situate herself in her position.

1. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/mendieta-untitled-silueta-series-mexico-t13357/text-summary

2.Blocker, Jane. Where Is Ana Mendieta? Duke University Press, 1999. Pg. 37

3. http://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/exhibitions/12/overview/

4. Perreault, John. Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective. Exhibition catalogue. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987. Pg. 10