The Photographic History of Your Skin

By Maurice Pinzon
How the idea of race and identity in the United States has been imagined through the photographic image is the story of “Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self”, the exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP).

The big battles over identity politics may have receded or been subsumed within a new global politics, but Coco Fusco, the curator of the exhibit, is intent on explaining photography’s influence on race and identity.

“You cannot understand the history of the United States without understanding race,” said Ms. Fusco, a New York artist and Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. “And you can’t understand race without understanding how photography represents race,” she added.

The “Only Skin Deep” exhibit is in five parts and divided into opposing dualities: “Looking Up – Looking Down”, the creation of racial “fact” through hierarchy and its subversive opposition, “All for One – One for All”, the contrast between the “ideal” American and the particularities of ethnicity, “Humanized – Fetishized”, imagery that lifts humanity as opposed to treating humanity as objects, “Assimilate – Impersonate”, photographs that suggest social conformity as opposed to images of the staged exotic, “Progress – Regress” the technological superiority of Western civilization, its dangers vs. less technologically advanced, therefore “primitive” civilizations.

Ms. Fusco said she wanted to bring a historical perspective to the discussion of identity politics by reminding us how photographs construct a view of our identities. Ms. Fusco and Brian Wallis, the co-curators, bring in 300 works to show us.

Ms. Fusco, in rapid-fire explanation, walked this reporter from one photograph to another and spoke about the history of the photographs. Even if you have seen a particular photograph before, at the exhibit you are invited to examine it historically. Why was it taken and how is the photographer using the image to display identity and race in America?

As you move through the exhibit you have to build the connections in your mind, instead of having them displayed for you in simplistic juxtaposition. You are photo surfing a visual web, a sort of Internet of its time.

Identity politics may have been eclipsed with the emergence of the complexity of race in an intermingling America, where tan is in and Asian and Latino cultures are having an increasingly greater impact on American society; where black Hip Hop has conquered white kids’ musical tastes. This makes identity less dualistic perhaps, but no less subject to the power of the image. How that ambiguity is displayed with the increased manipulative possibilities of the digitized images and as individuals create large personal digital libraries will perhaps be the next chapter in how America imagines race and identity.

“Only Skin Deep” is an ambitious exhibition. And Ms. Fusco and the ICP extend their discussion beyond the exhibit. There is also a book, “Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self”, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis.

If you take all this in you will likely feel as if you have signed up for a college course. To begin, visit the International Center for Photography, located at 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street in Manhattan. The exhibition runs through February 29, 2004.

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