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Photography show delves into racial issues

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Feb. 4, 2004 at 10:41 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- For the first time in the history of American photography the role of the camera in creating and perpetuating racial stereotypes is being explored in a large and unsettling exhibition at the International Center of Photography.

The show, which will later travel to museums and other venues throughout the United States, is one of the Millennium Projects supported the National Endowment for the Arts and is bound to disturb many conservatives who oppose funding of the NEA and the $18 million in additional funding President George W. Bush has proposed for the agency.

One of its dominant themes is the way white supremacy in American society was reinforced by photography, often by denigrating blacks and other ethnic groups.

In short, this show titled "Only Skin Deep" is a revolutionary re-reading of the archive of American photography, ranging from the daguerreotype of the mid-19th century to the digital imagery of today. No one interested in the racial issues that still confront the nation will want to miss it. It will run in New York through Feb. 29 then move on to the Seattle Art Museum in March, the first stop of its national tour.

"This project asks each viewer to question her or his own identity and the ways it is shaped by and linked to wider social ideas through photography," Willis E. Hartshorn, director of the photography center told United Press International.

"Despite the regular media claims that we have moved beyond race or that shifting demographics have made the concept irrelevant, ongoing political and social clashes attest to the contrary. If race is a myth, it remains and explosive one."

There are 300 photographs in the show, filling the center's entire gallery space, and many of them have the power to stir deep emotions.

Among these are Vivain Cherry's untitled picture of a lynching and John Vachon's picture of blacks working in a cotton field beneath a huge billboard advertising free luxury limousine service to a casino with a black chauffeur. An 1862 Civil War photograph of a General Williams shows him sitting in a chair, his black servant seated beside him on a low stool.

The show is wide-ranging, drawing on social documentary, photojournalism, ethnographic and scientific photography, straight portraiture and even erotica. It includes many of the big names in American photography -- Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White -- as well as such contemporary camera artists as Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano, Glenn Ligon, Nancy Burson and Nikki S. Lee.

Their pictures and those by many lesser-known photographers have been mounted with wall labels that offer no interpretation of the picture's content. There are schematic groupings of pictures but they don't seem important. The themes include the contrast in photographing "ideal" Americans and ethnic and racial types and how this can even be extended into space and imposed on natural and man-made landscapes.

Without label information, viewers are left to interpret the photographs according to their own perspectives on U.S. society and their personal prejudices. This can be difficult in the case of pictures that lack specific historic location or are ambiguous in meaning. For those who need more time to sort out their reactions, the show has a Web site: icp.org/exhibitions/onlyskindeep.

The show starts with an 1845 daguerreotype of "The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker, Boston," possibly the hand of an abolitionist who was imprisoned for trying to free Southern slaves and was branded with the letters "s.s." for "slave stealer." Shown nearby is a Gordon Parks photograph taken more than 100 years later showing a black looking out from an open Harlem street manhole, titled simply "Emerging Man."

Other photographs depict photographer Miguel Calderon in an Afro wig gradually evolving from a simian crouch into a Homo erectus brandishing an Uzi, two Asian men with the label "How to Tell Japs from Chinese" from a 1941 Life magazine, and a Filipino man exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 as "the missing link."

Cindy Sherman has photographed her favorite subject, herself, in black face, and black photographer Glenn Ligon's two-piece panel is titled "Self Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features" and "Self Portrait Exaggerating My White Features." There is also an early plantation photograph of black slave children who appear to be white as the result of miscegenation.

The show does much to underscore the centrality of race in America at the beginning of a new millennium.

One cannot look at a photograph of Japanese-American children in the nursery of the Manzanar internment camp in California in World War II and not wonder about the possibility that Arabic-American children of suspected terrorists found entrenched in American society may have to undergo the same or similar experience in the near future.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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