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Faces and Races


A YOUNG BLACK BOY is pictured in front of a stained cement wall. His head hangs disturbingly to one side, his arms dangle forward, and his feet are awkwardly positioned. At first glance, he appears to have been hanged. But there is no rope—the youth was play-acting the victim in a lynching game, conceived by a group of Harlem children. The photograph, taken by Vivian Cherry in 1947, is a reminder of a disgraceful time in American history.

The bigger picture, though, illustrates the way our response to visual imagery has impacted our understanding of race. In the late 19th century, lynching images were quickly processed and made into postcards. Hawkers promoted the pictures at the killing site, and the scenes were peddled to newspapers and even door-to-door.

Ironically, lynching images served opposing schools of thought. To white supremacists, the photos were confirmation that whites were in power and unified in their efforts to control and suppress blacks. Anti-lynching activists used the violent images to gain support for their cause.

As photography and mass communication developed, the nation saw the supporters of lynching in a different role—as shameful terrorists.

Cherry’s picture of the lynching game is one of more than 250 images in “Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self,” an exhibit hosted by the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) and the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) through December. It’s a large national touring show, curated by Brian Wallis, director of exhibitions and chief curator at New York’s International Center of Photography, and Coco Fusco, an author and professor of visual arts at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

The exhibition takes on the lofty goal of portraying the ways racial photography has molded ideas about American identity. There are historic and contemporary pictures that sadden and inspire, titillate and torment, shock—and most of all, teach.

Several genres are represented: commercial, digital and scientific photography; portraiture; social documentary; photojournalism; and erotica. The images are displayed at both museums and divided into five thematic categories that analyze America’s love/hate relationship with race.

In the Looking Up/Looking Down category, photographs either support or undermine the objectivity of racial hierarchies. Look for John Vachon’s 1948 print displayed at MoPA. A billboard looms above the streets of a bleak black neighborhood. The large white face of a young boy is plastered on the front, and he’s exclaiming, “I Am So an American!” At the bottom of the billboard it says: “You Bet, Sonny . . . No Matter What Your Race or Religion!”

“I think there is a quiet sense of indignation,” Fusco says of the photo. “The fact that all the black people on the street are looking away from the billboard spells out race relations in 1948 without shocking. It’s just there, and you understand where America was at that time. It was done by taking a corner of reality and showing you how social relations were scripted in advertising. It also combines the issue of racism with the issue of national identity, which was very important to me for the exhibition.”

The Humanized/Fetishized section intends to highlight the uniqueness of a subject with images that objectify and dehumanize. There are numerous historic lynching photographs, along with nudes and homoerotic images taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and others. Many of these pictures hold up a mirror to Americans as consumers of pictures that sexualize different ethnic types. And it’s disturbing to contemplate the underlying issues of subordination at play here. There is the bare-breasted Hawaiian woman in a grass skirt, and a delicate Asian girl with traditional ornaments as her only covering. A dark-skinned nude woman is sprawled on a couch, her whole head covered by a large white African mask. A naked muscular black man, with thick lips and glaring dark eyes, holds a spear with both hands.

A highlight of “Only Skin Deep” includes a stunning group of photographs by Gordon Parks, an internationally renowned artist who captured the plight of American blacks and simultaneously created visual poetry. Emerging Man, Harlem at SDMA is an example. It’s the image of a black man’s head rising from a manhole, taken in Harlem in 1952. All for One/One for All offers photographic examples that suggest an American “ideal” attached to specific ethnic or racial types.

In this category, viewers will find an Andres Serrano image from 1990 titled Klanswoman (Grand Kaliff II) displayed at MoPA. Serrano, a New York Latino known for his outrageous photographs, had the pluck to travel to the South to shoot a series of Ku Klux Klan portraits. In this picture, a lovely lashed feminine eye peaks out from a single eyehole in a giant white KKK hood.

In the same category at SDMA, Toyo Miyatake, a Japanese-American photographer confined at Manzanar Relocation Center, took a series of photos that offer a window into a segregated world. Manzanar was an American internment camp that held more than 11,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. With a makeshift camera, Miyatake took pictures of everyday life behind barbed wire. His gelatin print titled Receiving Dolls Donated by the American Friends Society shows six little smiling Japanese girls cradling white baby dolls with Caucasian features. They look happy to be holding new toys, even though the doll faces reflect those of their captors.

Images of whites attempting to look nonwhite are compared to nonwhites attempting to look white in the Assimilate/Impersonate category. There are several provocative 19th-century photographs of women. A voluptuous Caucasian blonde wears little more than an Indian headdress in a picture taken by Raoul Gradvohl in 1940. And in 1867, Will Soule shot film of a young squaw with blank eyes, nude except for a blanket and knee-high boots. Though both women were carefully posed to look sexually enticing, the fact that they are assuming a foreign persona detracts from that objective.

an antique photo of a billboardSeveral pictures included in Assimilate/Impersonate reflect the time of the Indian Boarding School Movement, when reformers believed the best method of saving the American Indian would be to strip him or her of Indian culture. Children were separated from their families. Braids were cut, English was spoken, and native clothing was exchanged for the dress of the white man and woman. Then came the ultimate propaganda instrument, the before-and-after photos. American Indian children in government-funded schools were pictured disheveled and soiled in the “before” shot, cleaned up and civilized in the “after” picture.

“The idea was this is how you mold this population according to the goals of assimilation policy,” says Fusco. “Photographs played a key role in getting the public to support this kind of social reform and subsidize it.”

Progress/Regress explores the way racial imagery is linked to America’s future, while other pictures reflect its past. An inkjet print by Pedro Meyer at MoPA shows a group of Mexican migrant workers. They are scattered in a field, all bent at the waist, working beneath a giant billboard that advertises free luxury limousine service to a casino.

“Only Skin Deep” makes the point that, throughout history, attempting to categorize and separate Americans by race has often been a destructive and ignorant endeavor. And though the eye of the camera can produce stunning beauty and stark ugliness, it cannot be counted on to capture the truth. It’s an important point when considering how visual imagery has become an increasingly powerful tool in communicating information. We are a society that wants to look first and read second, and we are easily moved to interpret what we have learned as positive or negative. “Only Skin Deep” inspires questions, which was just what Fusco intended when she selected the images for the exhibit.

“I was hoping people would begin to think about how the ways and sensibilities of the past are still with us,” she says. “I wanted people to think in a more complicated and nuanced way about the issue of how we envision race. I wanted people to recognize that the question of race is something photographers from many different backgrounds have been deeply invested in, whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian or American Indian.

© 2006 San Diego Magazine
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