Photos that go beyond 'skin deep'

When photographers in the United States were asked to submit works for a new national exhibit on race and identity, their choices often frustrated organizers.

"I cannot tell you how many uninteresting pictures of black and white kids holding hands I had to look at," says Coco Fusco, co-curator of "Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of The American Self," currently on display at the International Center for Photography in New York. "It's like the Martin Luther King speech 40 years later: That's not the picture that's going to tell us anything new or interesting."

Greeting-card images would not do for the conclusions that are drawn in this provocative exhibition. Using contemporary and historical material, "Only Skin Deep" explores how images shape and perpetuate views of race in America. As Ms. Fusco puts it, "You cannot understand how we know what race is without understanding how photographers taught us to see it."

The ambitious exhibit, which travels to Seattle in March, is unique in the materials it draws together in the galleries and on its website (icp.org/exhibitions/onlyskindeep). It mixes art photography with photojournalism; daguerreotypes with digital images. It demands much from visitors, asking them to jump from easy-to-grasp ideas, like the depiction of racial hierarchy, to the concept that race can be perceived in landscapes.

In an age when images are routinely manipulated for entertainment and advertising, "Only Skin Deep" also helps challenge the notion that whatever is presented in a photograph is the truth.

"You're really asked to question the context of the image," says Myra Greene, a professor of photographic arts at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. "There are moments where people are playing roles, and then there's some moments where people are documenting, and there are moments when people are making stereotypes."

Besides the works themselves - including ones by Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Gordon Parks - there are bigger ideas to consider, such as: how race is translated visually; how pictures convey who the "ideal" American is; how pleasure, rather than propaganda, drove the market for some photos. The exhibition explores these themes from the time of slavery to the O.J. Simpson trial, from the assimilation of American Indians to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

One theme that Fusco comes back to often in conversation (as there is little explanation in the galleries themselves) is how "white" is used as a stick against which other subjects are measured.

"You get a lot of pictures," she explains, "in which there may not necessarily be white people in the picture, but you see others being forced to pose in a way that makes them seem like they're acquiring the characteristics of whites."

A phalanx of black children saluting an American flag in 1899 is one example, as are other photos taken during times of assimilation. "Citizenship was restricted to whites, so if you were going to create a case for including others, you would have to show how others were capable of assuming the behavior of whites," says Fusco, an assistant professor of visual arts at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea is that there is whiteness in photos of landscapes. Some pictures represent the once prevalent idea of social Darwinism, namely the idea that technological advancement is the sign of a superior race. Finding the concept in a photo can be challenging without Fusco pointing it out - in a shot of a white woman demonstrating to natives of Borneo how to use a refrigerator in 1920, for example, or in a picture of settlers laying claim to Indian land in Oklahoma.

Images from racism's closet are also here - in the form of lynchings and photos of Klan members. As are representations of the shadow racism casts today: In Ken Light's "Strip Search, Shakedown Room of Visiting Area," from the "Texas Death Row" series, 1994, two white security guards watch as a black man stands with his back to them, all his clothes removed, save his socks and the white boxer shorts at his knees.

Still, racial and ethnic imagery are the exhibition's focus, not racism, organizer's say. Even within that category are pictures that counter the notion that images of racism are only about ugliness. Among the works in the "Humanize/Fetishize" section, for example, are nude images of Hawaiian, African-American, and native American women. "We want to keep them as 'other,' but we still desire them," is the idea the photos suggest, explains Deborah Willis, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University and an adviser to the exhibit.

Many of these images, particularly the historical ones - and even ones of lynchings - were made to be sold commercially, not to promote a racial agenda, says Fusco. "We have to keep in mind that the issue of race as it pertains to photography is a lucrative, profitable business for many people," she says. "It was in 1850, and it still is now."

She hopes that after seeing the collection of more than 300 works, people come away with an understanding of how these images influence identity, "that this is part of our national heritage ... part of our history, and that it permeates our consciousness of who we are."

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