As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.
Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.
Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*
Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.
Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.
I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?
*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.
I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.
I’ve had a copy of Born Free and Equal* on my shelf for a while. I’ve flipped through it a few times but never really looked that closely, or read the essays, in it until recently. It took receiving a copy of Colors of Confinement** for Christmas to give me the push to actually look at Adams’s work and realize how distinct—in both weird and great ways—it is.
*I have this version of it which is very clear about not being associated with anything officially Ansel Adams branded. Given how the photos are in the public domain there’s probably some interest in comparing different printings too. It’s also interesting to see how the Library of Congress has digitized the collection by scanning both Adams’s prints and his negatives and presenting both versions as high-resolution downloads.
**Yes I’ll have a post on this coming eventually to.
Adams’s work was not part of the WRA and so isn’t government propaganda. At the same time, with its heroic headshots and optimistic assimilated future it feels incredibly propagandalike. There’s nothing here about hardship or injustice. None of the camp watchtowers or fences are pictured.* Everyone is identified as American. And all the activities depicted—baseball, scouting, marching band, home decor, toys, clothing, etc.—are “American.” The rare “unamerican” things—tofu preparation and buddhist rituals—are part of larger lists rather than highlighted images in their own right.
*While the texts says that Adams was not allowed to shoot the fences or watch towers, his photographs are not about confinement at all.
The portraits in particular are indeed heroic: full sun, tightly cropped, no context besides occupation. While we know that the subjects suffered hardships, they’re unbowed, optimistic, and looking forward to bigger and better things. The other photos are similar in tone and emphasize the working settlement and community which they have built in a tough landscape. The text accompanying the images expands on these themes by emphasizing loyalty, their post-internment relocation plans, and how they’ll become productive Americans.
I fully understand why this point of view was needed at the time. And why it got Adams into a bit of trouble when he exhibited these photographs in 1944. Still, the assimilationist view bugs me. Both in how it defines what it means to be an American and by extension, what it implies is non-American. While these photos aren’t about confinement, they are about a loss of culture.* To present as American, most of the Japaneseness has been scrubbed out of the photos.
*Which, given how big a deal Obon and other Nikkei Matsuri are still today, is distinctly not what happened.
At the same time, I can’t hate on these photos. Despite my issues with them, a large part of me is overjoyed to see Asian-Americans presented as simply, American. What makes these photos distinctly great is that it’s sadly jarring to see this view even today. Many people still do not expect “regular Americans” to be Asian. We need to see this representation more often.
Looking through the photos with today’s eyes and I also see some weirdness going on. Despite not being about confinement at all, because Adams published them at a larger scale under his name, they sort of became the most-likely collection of internment images for people to have seen. Internment is correctly remembered as one of the United States’ major mistakes in civil rights yet the images associated with it are these heroic ones which gloss over most of the abuses. I found myself wanting to look at some of the more critical photos as well. Thankfully, the book has essays which point in the correct direction.
Archie Miyatake’s essay about his father, Toyo, is especially informative. Toyo Miyatake became the official Manzanar camp photographer after smuggling in a lens and ground glass. At first he photographed on the sly with his home-made camera* and smuggled film and chemicals but eventually gained the acceptance of the camp director and photographed officially.
I went looking for more of Miyatake’s photos of the camp. There are precious few of them online* but I was able to find copies of Two Views of Manzanar—a catalog from a 1978 show of Miyatake’s and Adams’s Manzanar photographs—and Elusive Truth: Four Photographers at Manzanar—a 2002 book** which features Miyatake, Adams, Clem Albers, and Dorothea Lange and frames the internment as something we need to remember in a post-September 11 world.*** There’s also a good, but long, series of posts by Nancy Matsumoto which covers all this ground and then some.
*Which is why there are none in this post.
**I can’t recommend it since some of the photos are printed horribly. Thankfully JARDA exists instead so I can find higher resolution versions of what’s in the book.
***There’s no need to discuss Adams’s photos again but it is worth noting that the subjects are identified by name instead of occupation in these two books.
Miyatake’s photos are interesting. Lots of posed documentary shots since that’s what he was supposed to be doing in the camp. But also a lot of images that Adams didn’t, or couldn’t show. The watchtowers. Posing by the barbed wire fences. Kids lined up at the toy loan center. It’s very clear how this is strange confined world which is not acceptable.
There’s also a lot of the flip side to what Adams’s photos show. Where Adams photographed members of the 442nd as American heroes, Miyatake photographed their departure and their funerals and the way this impacted the community left behind—especially the Issei who Adams didn’t depict and who can’t be described as Americans because they weren’t allowed to become citizens.
The photos aren’t all negative though. Miyatake’s aims were more about capturing and remembering what happened rather than publishing and achieving social change. He wanted to be in Manzanar for the duration and have images which showed the entirety of the camp to future generations. There are photos of graduations and Christmases and other events showing how life went on and people had fun and things weren’t horrible even though nothing depicted should be considered normal. Ever.
Sort of ironically, it’s the official WRA photographs which end up hammering the social justice angle of the camps. Clem Albers and Dorothea Lange have different axes to grind—Albers is skeptical of the government and Lange is all about social change—but together their photos capture a much different Manzanar. Instead of the self-sufficient settlement that Adams shows, the WRA photos show the camp at its worst—needing to be cleared and built by the same people who were to be confined there.
Albers in particular is very smart about trying to show confinement while following the guidelines of not showing actual confinement. He frames subjects behind glass or in tight rooms or somehow otherwise confined. And if he can’t do that he includes a caucasian authority figure who, while not being depicted negatively, implies that there is more going on in the image. Why does the military police need to be involved with getting children or the elderly off of a train?
Lange meanwhile sees the internees as tragic figures who are being horribly wronged by their government. Her photos emphasize the existing context of what has been done to the internees. If you include her work of the evacuation before the camps were set up,* this point of view becomes even stronger. They’ve lost so much and are now working extremely hard in an inhospitable place to eek out their living. There’s no future in mind, only our complicity in what’s been done to them already.
Lange and Albers’s photos look more like what I’d expect images of the internment to look like. Harsh, brutal, unjust images of an unjust event. Looking at them solidified my takeaway from Adams’s work about how weirdly great it is. Despite its assimilationist tones, there is something wonderful about presenting an oppressed group not only as humans but as peers who have persevered despite the oppression. All too often we only see the oppression and suffering which, while important to witness, risks making someone else’s pain into a spectacle.
Saturday morning. It’s almost noon. I’m standing in line at the department store cash register. A few people in front of me, behind me a small group forming. I look at those waiting in line—people of all kinds. A broad spectrum of society. What will they do after they’ve finished shopping—how will they spend their Saturday? And what about Sunday? How was their week? How do they spend their free time?
Another one from the Tumblr wires. Ursula Sprecher and Andi Cortellini’s Hobby Buddies is a straightforward typology which manages to be more interesting than its “kind of high school yearbooky” premise would suggest. Part of this is due to the variety and hyper-specific nature of some of the clubs depicted. But a large part is that these photos are often very funny while typically not poking fun at the people depicted.* Which is a very hard line to tread.
*I don’t think any of the photos are meant to poke fun. But some groups, like sadly, the photo club, are probably impossible to not laugh at.
This project is a new interpretation of immigration using color as a unifying metaphor of diversity and acceptance. Each woman will be identified with a color palette so that a mosaic of color represents diversity.
I am presenting the lives of Juanita in yellow, Delia’s in blue and Sabel in green. Homes have deep emotional meaning. Through their homes we get to know them, their motivations, their thoughts and aspirations along with the conditions they live in that reveal how much they have achieved and struggled. They have painted and decorated their rooms according to their own personal story and choice. I am exploring the notion of safety and confidence in relation to space.
Another project which caught my eye on Tumblr. Artspeak and ambitious goal aside, I really like these as representations of a community by someone kind of in that community. These are photos about people, not just of them and the way that so many have of them have detailed captions is as important to the story as just the images.
Also, I really love the way Prieto Arenas is using color. It’s not just the colors of the walls, there’s a lot of subtle lighting and color temperature stuff going on which gives each series an internal consistency.
After being bullied as a teen, the teaching assistant tried waxing, shaving and bleaching to hide her facial hair.
Once baptized Sikh, a religion which forbids cutting body hair, the 23-year-old decided to embrace her body as it was.
‘When I first started growing my beard it was for religious reasons but as the years have gone by I’ve kept it for more personal reasons.
‘It makes me feel like a brave, confident woman who isn’t afraid to break society’s norms,’ she added.
So great, right?
From a photography standpoint, it’s interesting to compare Kaur’s portrait to those of the men which the Daily Mail included for comparison:
Re: LRT (https://t.co/KglUBpWW03) Interesting to compare the portrait of Kaur w/the portraits of men by the same photog (scroll down a bit)
I have very little in the way of formal photography education, and what little of that there is, was mostly dedicated to retro technicalities like darkroom work. But one of the things that I found fascinating (and not a little disquieting) was the centrality of gender in standard portrait lighting and posing.
The photography program in question is of the trade school flavor, and so the focus habitually was on workaday commercial representations—actor headshots, for example, or photos of business folks businessing. In those applications, representing the gender of the subject in a way that makes them appealing and hireable is one of the main considerations.
That gender is something actively constructed and performed is something I’ve understood for a long time, but until I was actually being taught portrait 101 stuff, it never occurred to me that a photographer has to play an active role in gendering a portrait subject. In my habitual way of thinking, another person’s gender identity and expression is primarily their business, and aside from not misgendering them, not something I need to do anything about.2
So this idea that before I could start working through a portrait of somebody, I’d have to make decisions about what sort of masculinity or femininity I would be building for them was super, super weird. I could (and did) question a lot of what the instructor had to offer in terms of received wisdom for what women and men should look like in portraits—but there’s no easy alternate wisdom to swap in. One can make different choices about this, but one cannot not make choices about it.