Category Archives: race and privilege

Multiply, Identify, Her

After taking in ICP’s HCB and Erwitt rooms, I went downstairs to see the Multiply, Identify, Her portion of the museum. This exhibition featured around ten different women photographers—or artists working in photography/videography-related media—all working on various representative projects.

ICP’s write-up is mostly art-speak gobbledygook but the general theme of the rooms as being about representation and identity holds up. Yes I have problems with the way that museums tend to pigeonhole non-white and/or non-male photographers as working exclusively in the representation and identity realm. And yes it certainly feels like this exhibition is designed to counterbalance the “neutral” while maleness of the HCB and Erwitt rooms. But taking the show on its own terms works well enough.

The last couple decades of photography have been wonderful for increasing access to the ability to create photography* and with this increased access has been an increased awareness of representation. What the male gaze looks like. What the white gaze looks like. What it means to represent yourself and how that exists in conversation with the ways that viewers are conditioned to look at images.

*Reminding me of an old twitter debate about the Kodak 1 and whether consuming photography or creating photography is more important.

I’m very glad that so many of the photographers in this exhibition are non-white women as it allows for many many different approaches and actively discourages me from writing about the exhibition in a general way. Each artist is dealing with representation issues in her own way and so I can only touch on the pieces that really struck me.

Christina Fernandez. Untitled Multiple Exposure #7 (Bravo), 1999.

Christina Fernandez’s rephotography/reenactment project is interesting in how it addresses both the way that photographic representation often relies on tropes and how those tropes are part of our cultural literacy and baggage now. In this case the way that natives get used as unnamed models of some sort of “pure” past is a particularly insidious habit that repeats over photographic history. The way Fernandez embraces her own indigeneity and makes the statement that both she has a name and is still living in the present are important. It’s very easy to present Nativeness as a thing of the past.

That the resulting layered images don’t quite work is also something I really like about these. Reconciling the tropes as someone who’s subject to them is an impossible task which is also impossible to escape.

Lorna Simpson. Blue Wave, 2011.

Lorna Simpson’s hair pieces are a lot of fun in a provocative way. They remind me of Ellen Gallagher’s Wiglettes but rather than critiquing the beauty standards of the past there’s an element of looking forward and celebrating the possibilities of creating new standards.

Simpson’s work also does this thing where it simultaneously makes the hair the focus of the piece while drawing our attention to the models’ faces.

Roni Horn. This is me, This is you 1998-2000

My favorite piece is Roni Horn’s “This is me, This is you.” I love how it goes right at the ways family photography is its own difficult way genre where picking that one good photo is impossible. There are always multiple nice photos and they’re always somehow both indistinguishable from each other yet distinctly different.

Horn’s photos of her niece also capture that wonderfully awkward transition age between childhood and adolescence—an age my eldest is about to enter. It’s an age where everything is awkward but you’re just learning how society expects you to be. It’s an age where you’re still a kid but also trying to be “grown up.” It’s really the first time that concept of representation is something that begins to matter.

Gina Osterloh. Press and Outline, 2014.

And Gina Osterloh’s movie/dance with her shadow is one of those subtle things that I increasingly appreciate the more I think about it. At first it’s merely neat. But the way it touches on how so much of the way society pressures women comes down to literally their silhouettes is kind of genius. The dance and way that her shadow is distinct but also inescapable suggests the push-pull nature of trying to control her silhouette while also being beholden to its demands.

I also very much like the idea of including Osterloh’s film in an exhibition of photography. Not just because the way that film and photography are related but in how light and shadow are the basic ingredients of photography itself. All photography is the same dance between light and shadow and seeing which position within there works best.

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Atlee surprise

One of the things I’ve especially enjoyed about Twitter is the way the multiracial community exists on there. While many of us, correctly, are leery of being lumped into a single box, there’s a lot of value in comparing experiences and seeing how so many of them feel familiar. I haven’t blogged a ton about this kind of thing except when it overlaps with my other interests like photography and baseball (and baseball cards) since it’s tough to do well.

Aside from being a level of personal exposure which is hard in and of itself to write, let alone share, one of the things I’ve taken to heart the most about being multiracial is that the stories I’m often most inspired by are stories where my reaction risks erasing someone else’s experience. All too often the safer thing is to be quiet and not pin my narrative to someone else’s.

The result of this is that I also never expect the things I do write about my multiracial experience to be commented on outside of people I know. The experiences are worth sharing but I suspect that we all feel similar levels of trepidation about recentering them to be about ourselves as well. That the multiracial community doesn’t overlap much with baseball card twitter meant that while I liked what I wrote about Atlee Hammaker, I certainly didn’t expect to find that it touched anyone else in card twitter.

And then Carl (@CeeMX97) started following me. He’s a Phillies fan about an hour south of me down I295 who’s similarly multiracial to me. Aside from talking baseball or cards we’ve also commiserated about things from the dire situation for Japanese and Korean food in New Jersey to how our Asian flush has gotten worse as we’ve aged. Needless to say, my Atlee post touched a nerve with him to the point where earlier this week I found a small envelope with a bunch of Atlee Hammaker cards inside.

Nothing fancy here but since most of my existing Atlee collection is tied up with my Giants collection it’s nice to have duplicates to flesh out the few non-Giants cards of his I’ve got (basically just his rookie card and his 1991 Studio card).

I’m no supercollector but I appreciate having a dedicated Atlee section in my binder. It’s a nice reminder of the ways that my new collection interacts with my childhood one and the difference in perspective that I have now.

Carl also included two signed cards in the package. He does a bit of through-the-mail (TTM) requesting and often includes duplicate cards in his requests for the players to keep. Often the players do keep the extras but other times, like in these cases, it seems that they signed and returned everything.

I’ve been toying with the idea of taking up TTM requests myself. It’s something I can see enjoying by sending to guys I grew up with. It’s also something I can see doing with my kids as a way of encouraging them to write letters and engage with this hobby more. Chris Speier is one of the guys at the top of my “to try” list for reasons I’ve already touched on on this blog so it’s very cool to have one before I even start considering TTMs seriously.

Don Robinson meanwhile is another favorite of mine. I’ve a few of his signatures already but this is the first one featuring him holding a bat. Pitchers with bats is a fun category of cards as it is. When it’s a pitcher like Caveman who we liked in part because of how he approached batting? Even better.

Thanks Carl for appreciating my blog and for the surprise Atlees and TTM duplicates. It looks like I have to start a Phillies pile now.

Black Aesthetics

A short post to wrap up my latest visit to the Princeton Art Museum where I also saw Michael Kenna and Clarence H. White. While Princeton’s Making History Visible show is still up, the museum has added a new, related show to the mix.

Where Making History Visible is about the erasure of blackness from how the US represents itself and transgressive it can feel to add Blackness back into the mythology, Black Aesthetics looks forward. Rather than operating in the realm of white comfort and subverting things, it’s about creating forms of expression and a mythology of blackness that don’t have to be concerned with white comfort.

It’s noteworthy how global this show is. There’s a common culture of forced detribalization and the resultant vacuum of mythology across the African diaspora which influences many of the works on display. So we have art from artists across the globe—the US, UK, Cuba, Bahamas, Kenya, etc.—all of which deal in various ways with creating their own identities on their own rather than letting the dominant white colonial cultures dictate that for them.

Seeing the two exhibitions together is informative since it makes the point that both approaches are both valid and necessary. Putting artists like Glenn Ligon in both exhibitions confirms this. There is great value in subverting expectations of white comfort. But it’s just as important to operate completely outside of the white comfort framing.

 

Princeton Roundup

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick walk through the Princeton Art Museum. Not enough to do a proper writeup of either of the shows I saw but I can’t let them just go uncommented on either.

Making History Visible

Titus Kapha. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016

Titus Kaphar. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016.

Making History Visible is a show about American myths and heroes and what’s left out of the standard representations of our history. It’s a small but very good mix of 19-century works with modern interpretations that remix and reframe our understandings of those works.

Titus Kaphar’s work is the clear focal point of the exhibition as his tarred portraits demonstrate how comfortable—especially from a white comfort point of view—the 19th-century works are. The recognizable form serves as shorthand for the setting but the black tar which obscures the portrait facial features is unsettling.

The tar works on so many levels. Aside from the literal implications of tar and blackness it confirms how we never see non-white faces in these kinds of paintings. Even if they’re there we’ve been trained not to notice them. They get cropped out of reproductions or obscured in shadows due to poor lighting. Making us look and notice, even if we can’t see a face is an important-enough intervention. The way that the tar works as hair texture in an Ellen Gallagher kind of way is almost a bonus.

Faith Ringgold’s Declaration of Freedom and Independence is very similar in how it takes a text and form which we’re used to seeing as “americana” and tweaks it so it’s uncomfortably obvious how the comfortable representation is really white america. There are also Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker pieces which do similar things where we’re asked to loo closer and recognize how the artists are subverting the form.

All in all it’s a smart little exhibition which manages to make the white comfort nature of the art museum into a feature and is definitely the kind of subversion that I’d like to see more of in Princeton.

Transient Effects

Howard Russell Butler. Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Howard Russell Butler.
Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Transient Effects is a selection of Howard Russell Butler’s eclipse paintings and represents an exhibition which recognizes the artistic merit of science and craft. Butler’s paintings were intended to be observations and records of the eclipses. Accuracy is of the highest importance and much of the exhibition discusses his notes and painting methods.

As a photographer it’s interesting for me to see painting described this way. Photography is so much about observation and seeing and gets criticized both when it’s too obsessed with accuracy and when it “lies.” So much of the endless digital versus film debates are about the process of taking time to “slow down and think” yet for some reason the idea that painting should be in the mix never enters that argument.

The idea of presenting all art as observation and process is fantastic. One of the reasons why I love it when science-related pieces make it into a museum is that issues of use and process are inherently brought with them and I’m reminded how much I miss that information in the rest of the museum. Also, as a design major I recognize that there’s a lot of art in science and engineering which never gets properly recognized unless it’s photographed or painted.

Also, as paintings themselves and having just seen the eclipse this summer, it was especially wonderful to see Butler’s paintings and be reminded all over again of the event. The paintings do capture details like the blackness of the disc and the deep blue of  the sky which I remember but haven’t seen in any photos. It’s also wonderful to see how different each eclipse is and be reminded again about how much I want to see another one.

Atlee

Being mixed race means that I grew up constantly being put into different “what are you?” boxes.* Society likes to sort us and I often describe my maturation in terms of which box I was most-likely to be sorted into—my standard description is along the lines that I was “chinese” when I was in grade school, “mexican” as a teenager, and only became white as an adult. But I was never actually any of those things. I only use those descriptions as shorthand for being aware of how society types me, what triggers that identification, and what behavior I may need to modify for my safety in that situation.

*I’ve written more about my background but my thinking has evolved a bit on that in the past four years.

I preferred to identify myself as not having a box at all. Even though I was lucky to have many mixed-race friends in school I never really thought of them as my group. None of us had identical racial backgrounds and, so while we could discuss a lot of common ground in terms of experiences we shared, we all had very different identities.

It was only in high school when we had stars like Dean Cain and Russell Wong that the idea of a “hapa”* box became feasible. I wasn’t interested but I could see the appeal. There were people like us in mass media and yeah, while they had to play either completely-white or completely-asian roles, at least they sort of existed. By then though I’d also already embraced my non-categoriness and absorbed the idea that I would always have to defer to someone else who was more of whatever part of my identity I was partaking in.

*I’m using “hapa” in this case specifically because of its extremely-limited half-asian/half-white meaning which the multiracial asian community jumped all over in the late 1990s/early 2000s because of the gaping absence of any other term to self-identify as. It’s no longer a term I use to describe any group of people even though I do still use it to self-identify—with family from Hawai‘i, I feel like it does capture some of my specific story. But the fact that it all-too-often loses its Hawaiian context is a big problem. As is the fact that it all-too-often is limited to just asian/white people.

It’s not that being mixed-race means that I’m insufficiently anything. It’s that I’m aware of the limits of my experience of my culture. I know that there’s always more to learn and more family history to uncover. I know that my culture and experience is best described in terms of where my ancestors came from rather than who I am.

Sometimes though I wonder if things could’ve been different. I’ve seen my sons’ friends ask if mixed-race parents like me are the parents of his similarly-mixed-race friends. It’s not just that there’s a cohort of mixed race kids. Many of the parents are also mixed race now and, while kids are still grouping by type—it’s amazing how engrained that idea of what a family unit should look like is—I get the sense that much of my sons’ generation has a much different understanding of how culture works and that there is a benefit to being typed into a box which kind of fits you.

Representation is always good. But it’s more than that. What seems to be a lot of the driving force in this though is that they understand what they might grow up to be like. Which is really where the family-unit typing seems to come into play. Kids learn early on that they’ll grow up to look like their family. A lot of the “what about the kids” panic with mixed race couples stems from the fear that the kids won’t look like their parents. And while that’s bullshit, I have seen that as kids learn how race works really early and that, once that view is in place they see racial differences as overriding any other similarities.

So it‘s a good thing that my sons’ generation is growing up where mixed-race adults are common. I’m kind of jealous. I’m glad I had peers but I can see how different things are to just see what you could look like as a grown up.

It was only in getting back into baseball cards that I realized that there were a couple of years in the late 1980s when my classmates had accurately identified a mixed-race adult for me to look like.

Atlee Hammaker 1983 Topps Atlee Hammaker 1984 Topps All Stars

When I was ~10 everyone started calling me Atlee. I was a Giants fan and I supposedly looked like our pitcher, Atlee Hammaker. He’d been a star, of sorts, a few years earlier but by the time I was a fan injuries had kind of derailed his career. As a result, he’d developed a bit of a reputation as being a headcase—specifically the type of pitcher who’s great when no one’s on base but loses his composure as soon as anyone reaches base.

I hated that nickname and being told that I looked like him—mostly because, in my view, he wasn’t that good. Looking at his stats now gives me a better sense of it. He was in the midst of going from a decent—albeit injury-prone—pitcher to a replacement-level one. A decent career with a few high points—just not the trajectory any kid wants to be associated with.

Getting back into cards though has involved me googling around about players whose cards trigger my memories. In Hammaker’s case, I discovered that he was mixed-race, specifically German/Japanese—very close to the same thing I am. I’d had no idea when I was a kid—no one else did either—but finding that out kind of softened my memories. Rather than seeing his cards and having a visceral “oh god I hated being called Atlee” reaction, I’ve warmed to him and begun to wonder how I would’ve reacted if I’d known as a kid.

Would I have latched on with the same sense of ownership that I latched on to Scott Erickson—who grew up a stone’s through from my house—a few years later? No idea. But I suspect I would’ve been more supportive instead of rolling my eyes each time he got the fidgets when someone got on base.

And no, I didn’t grow up to look like him. That’s not how any of this works. But as someone who rarely smiles in photos, I am enjoying looking at his cards from the 1980s and being amused at how he never smiles and always has the same deadpan expression on his face. I’d like to think that his special 1984 All Star card is a reflection of his disastrous appearance in 1983 but it’s just the way he always looks.

Enduring Truths

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1863; albumen print mounted on cardboard; 4 x 2 1/2 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. I sell the shadow to support the substance

I read Picturing Frederick Douglass a year and a half ago. It’s great but I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Yes the photos are good. Yes Douglass’s thoughts on photography are wonderfully modern. But I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to comment on.

It was only upon reading Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths that I realized why I couldn’t figure out anything to say. Douglass—both in his lectures and his photographs—focuses a lot on the image itself. What it means to make them. What it means to sit for them. What it means to look at them. He does not talk much about the photographs as objects, he thinks of them as texts. While I find those discussions interesting, they’re not what really get me excited.

I enjoy photographs as objects and illustrations. I love thinking about how we use them and how they function in society. Enduring Truths is about how people used photographs in the mid-19th century. How they were made. How they were purchased. How they were sold and collected and saved. It’s fascinating stuff—even more so given my return to baseball cards—which captures the beginning of photographs as currency, not just personal images or texts.

That Sojourner Truth sustained herself financially through selling photos of herself* means that the issues of copyright, production (and reproduction), branding, etc. are just as important as the actual content of the image. Grigsby does a masterful job at explaining how copyright law had to change to adjust for photography—especially in terms of choosing whether to prioritize the photographer or the sitter in terms of ownership—and how Truth’s decision to brand her cards with a copyrighted slogan represents an additional level of rights assertion over the fluidity of the situation.

*at 50¢ a pop which adjusts to ~$10.00 per photo today. Which seems both like a lot but is also the amount for a single Topps Now card.

Grigsby also gets into how the cards are made—especially the way that photography had to adjust for taking photos of dark skin—, the time frames involved, the quantities purchased, and the way they’re taxed by the government as a way of describing the culture of carte de visite (CdV) creation and collecting. They’re not exactly cheap because you have to order multiple copies—tintypes are still more affordable for lower-income people—but they’re cheap enough that at a certain middle-class level you could afford to not just make your own but acquire other peoples’ too. You had to purchase your own cards and it’s notable that Sojourner Truth purchased up to a hundred at a time when most people were purchasing maybe a dozen.

Where Grigsby outdoes herself though is in bringing in paper currency and autograph collecting as parallel developments which deserve to be seen as part of burgeoning CdV photography culture.

At the same time photography is coming into its own as a mass culture phenomenon, autograph collecting is also developing. Put these together—sometimes literally with either signed CdVs or CdVs of signatures—and we see the beginning of celebrity culture where we can traffic in both collectible images and something indicating a personal touch.

Photography, from its very beginning, has been tied up with celebrity culture and assignations of “value.” For Grigsby to compare it with paper money, both in terms of how they develop at the same point in history and how fraught the discussion about who should be depicted on the money has always been* is fantastic. I love, LOVE her description of both photography and paper currency as “reverse alchemy” where precious metals are transformed into paper.

*There’s a reason the US passed a law to prohibit anyone who was alive from appearing on money.

But it’s more than just the idea that paper is worth something. It’s the idea that images are intended to circulate and through their circulation they take on lives which are outside the control of the sitters or the photographers. As a photographer, I love how Douglass’s lectures make me think about why I’m taking photos. But as someone who loves to look at photos, it’s in the life of the images and how we consume them—or try and direct that consumption like Truth did with her assertions of copyright—that fascinates me.

Revealing Pictures

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Sheng Qi

Sheng Qi

So I was back in the Princeton Museum and found that when they changed the galleries they hung more photographs related to their Revealing Pictures show. the show itself is the same, but there are more photos in the surrounding galleries which are now part of it. The new photos are almost all by non-white or non-western photographers and completely change—on a good way—my reaction to the show.

Initially I had mixed feelings. I convinced myself to like it but still found a lot of it to emphasize trauma as being the easiest context in which to understand photographs. It’s nice to see photos from the non-western world but a main narrative of poverty or trauma or suffering indulges Western stereotypes about the rest of the world.

The additional photos are much more representative, both in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the contexts they exist within. They’re photographers photographing themselves and their own communities and, while they require us to understand what else is going on, challenge the western gaze in ways that the original set of photos did not.

I especially liked Deana Lawson and Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou here in terms of how their images feel like inside jobs where the connection between the photographer and the subject is one of being a trusted member of the community. Through this trust we’re allowed to learn about the conditions of the photo and that context is an additional educational experience.

Abbodjelou in particular stood out to me because he reminded me of color Keïta or Sibide work. I realized that I hadn’t made the Vlisco connection with Keïta’s work and, while still in awe of the beauty in his photographs, I kind of want to know what color they were now. Also, knowing the stories behind the fabrics in his backdrops makes me appreciate them even more.

A lot of the new photos also reminded me of Ragnar Kjartansson in how they’re both the evidence of performance or conceptual art pieces and photos which are their own works of art by themselves. Sheng Qi and Zhang Huan* stand out here in how their photos both document their performances and make us viscerally react to the concepts once we read about the context.

*Whose work I saw in San José years ago too.

Also at the Princeton Museum

While not part of the Revealing Pictures show, the Princeton Museum was also showing off its recent acquisition of Susan Meiselas’s Life of an Image. I blogged about is a few years ago and I’m so happy I got to see it live. I don’t have much to add over my Itinerant Languages post but it is indeed very cool to see a collection which shows how a photo has basically become a meme. We live in a remix culture and the more museums and artists embrace this and bring it into the galleries the better our visual literacy will get.