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Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self

October 1 - December 31, 2005


(above: from Section I: Looking Up/Looking Down, John Vachon (1914-1975), Billboard (MoPA), Modern print from original negative, 1948, 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Collection of the International Center of Photography. Museum purchase, 2003)


This fall, in a joint collaboration, the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) and the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) are presenting more than 250 works of photography that reveal the tumultuous history of the representation of race in America. Titled Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self and organized by the International Center of Photography in New York, this exhibition is the first comprehensive view of how photography has shaped both stereotypes and changing perceptions of what Americans look like. In addition, the two museums are co-hosting a related film series. (right: from Section IV: All for One/One for All, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (SDMA), Gelatin silver print, 1936, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches (34.3 x 26.7 cm). Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, the Dorothea Lange Collection, gift of Paul S. Taylor)

Dating from the mid-19th century to the present, the works in Only Skin Deep range from daguerreotypes to vintage postcards, film stills, prints from negatives, and digital images. The exhibition also spans a wide range of genres and movements, including commercial photography, portraiture, social documentary, photojournalism, ethnographic and scientific photography, Pictorialism, Surrealism, reportage, and erotica.

The images created in these varied styles offer a critical rereading of the archive of the history of photography. This applies to the works of famous photographers-such as Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Edward Steichen-as well as lesser-known historical figures, including Charles Eisenmann, Will Soule, and Toyo Miyatake. Contemporary artists and photographers who have moved beyond the multi-cultural approach to representations of "race" are also prominently featured in the exhibition. They include Nancy Burson, Nikki S. Lee, Glenn Ligon, Paul Pfeiffer, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, and Andres Serrano, among many more.

Other photographers represented in Only Skin Deep , such as Ansel Adams, O. Winston Link, and Man Ray, may not be known as commentators on race but nonetheless created works that speak about it. The exhibition also raises crucial questions about how ideas of race permeate culture through a variety of images from the realms of abstraction, landscape photography, and photo documentation of land-art genres in which the figure is not central or even visible.

Engaging some of the most profound and explosive issues in contemporary life, this exhibition explores how photography has shaped Americans' understanding of nation, race, ethnicity, and self. Even as symbols, photographs depicting ethnic difference and cultural superiority have real consequences in everyday life.

Co-curator Coco Fusco remarks in her essay: "The photographic image plays a central role in American culture. Americans are avid producers and consumers of photographs and as our culture shifts from being predominantly print-based to image-based, we grow increasingly reliant on photographs for information about histories and realities that we do not experience directly. But we also create and use photography to see ourselves. By looking at pictures we imagine that we can know who we are and who we were... No other means of representing human likeness has been used more systematically to describe and formulate American identity than photography." By examining from a perspective that neither accuses nor valorizes, but rather studies their social impact, Only Skin Deep explores ways in which photographs make cultural classifications visible, understandable, and useful.

As an inquiry into racial and ethnic imagery as opposed to one that examines racism, Only Skin Deep features works that evoke popularly held ideas about race-regardless of the intent of the photographers who took them. Further, this exhibition moves beyond considering race in terms of black versus white by including representations of most ethnic groups in the United States, and, in particular, breaks new ground by considering the myriad depictions of white Americans. (right: from Section II: Assimilate/Impersonate, Max Becher (b. 1964)/Andrea Robbins (b. 1963), German Indians: Campfire (MoPA) , Chromogenic print, 1996, 20 x 24 inches (50.8 x 60.9 cm). Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery, New York)


Exhibition Sections

Arranged into five thematic groups, Only Skin Deep shows how racial imagery is organized in binary terms: normal vs. abnormal, order vs. disorder, beauty vs. ugliness, mind vs. body, individual vs. type, and progress vs. backwardness. These oppositions are enforced by some of the exhibiting photographers and subverted by others. The themes are:

Looking Up/Looking Down demonstrates how racial hierarchies can be either based in truth or subverted through irony and parody. Some of the subjects in this section have been denigrated while others are idealized by the photographers.
All for One/One for All presents photographs that suggest an "ideal" American, while others represent specific ethnic or racial types.
Humanized/Fetishized contrasts photographs designed to emphasize a subject's uniqueness with those that objectify and dehumanize it. Some images in this group express their ideas about race through the depiction of space and objects rather than human beings.
Assimilate/Impersonate compares subjects who are represented as good candidates for assimilation with those who emulate the characteristics of non-white racial groups.
Progress/Regress focuses on how some images of racial groups represent America's future while others evoke its pre-industrial past. Featured in this section of the exhibition are images that extend the theme beyond the body into space and illustrates how racial ideas can be imposed onto natural and man-made landscapes.

"No issue has generated more heat in America than race. Photography is one of the principal formats for communicating ideas about it," says Arthur Ollman, director of MoPA. "The Museum of Photographic Arts is delighted to share this important and powerful exhibition with our friends at the San Diego Museum of Art. Our collaboration makes us both stronger and more vital." (left: from Section III: Humanize/Fetishsize, Gordon Parks (b. 1912), Emerging Man, Harlem (SDMA), Gelatin silver print, 1952, 16 1/8 x 19 7/8 inches (40.9 x 50.4 cm). International Center of Photography, purchased by the ICP Acquisitions Committee, 2003 )

"The San Diego Museum of Art is proud to co-present this groundbreaking exhibition with our colleague institution, MoPA," says Derrick Cartwright, SDMA's executive director. "This important exhibition takes a bold approach in challenging how photography shapes understanding of racial identity."

Only Skin Deep is a Millennium Project supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts with major funding provided by Corbis, Altria Group, Inc., The Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation, and additional support from Samuel L. and Dominique Milbank and from the Third Millennium Foundation.


Symposium: Visualizing Race in American Photography

In conjunction with Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self , the San Diego Museum of Art in collaboration with the UCSD Visual Arts Department presented "Visualizing Race in American Photography" on Saturday, October 1, 2005. This symposium focused on the role photography has played in the development of racial and national identity in the United States. The panel brings together scholars and critics, including Coco Fusco, Richard Meyer, Malik Gaines, Ken Gonzales Day, and will be moderated by Roberto Tejada.


Only Skin Deep Film Series

The San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts are presenting a four-part film series in conjunction with the exhibition Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self. Screenings take place at MoPA in the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Tickets may be purchased in advance at SDMA or on the day of the film at MoPA. Films include To Kill a Mockingbird (10/13/05), Gringo in Mañanaland (10/27/05), Smoke Signals (11/10/05), and Rabbit in the Moon (11/17/05). All films begin at 7:00 p.m.


Exhibition Curators

This exhibition is organized by Brian Wallis, ICP director of exhibitions and chief curator, and Coco Fusco, an interdisciplinary artist, critic, and associate professor in the Visual Arts Division at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

Exhibition Catalogue

The fully illustrated, 416-page catalogue edited by Brian Wallis and Coco Fusco, the exhibition's co-curators, contains essays by scholars, artists' statements, brief biographies of the artists, and extensive bibliographic data.

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Photography: 18-19th Century, 19-20th Century, 20-21st Century


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