Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2009
Beyond the Familiar: Photography and the Construction of Community
Exhibition schedule: Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA, September 20, 2008–March 8, 2009
Liu Zheng: The Chinese
Exhibition schedule: Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA, November 15, 2008–April 26, 2009
Liu Zheng. Two Miners, Datong, Shanxi Province (from The Chinese). Negative 1996, printed 2006. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, Wachenheim Family Fund. M.2006.5.34. Photo courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts.

This past winter and spring, the Williams College Art Museum mounted two photography shows based on work from its own collection. The first, Beyond the Familiar, was the more survey-like and pedagogical (with several Williams graduate students serving as curators), bringing together 12 photographers with samples from their most signature projects, about 120 pictures in all. The pictures and photographers come from widely different places and times: Felice Beato’s Views of Japan, Edward Curtis’s pictures of Native Americans, and P. H. Emerson’s Pictures of East Anglian Life, representing work from the nineteenth century; August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document, and Robert Frank’s Americans, representing the mid-twentieth; David Goldblatt’s South Afrikaners Photographed and Barbara Norfleet’s All the Right People, representing the late twentieth; and Tina Barney’s Europeans and Zwelethu Mthethwa’s Interior Series, representing the twenty-first. The curators’ central effort in juxtaposing such different works was to explore “personal identity in the larger context of social groups” and the “role of the photographic medium in the construction of cultural identity,” as their press release explains. Unspoken, though assumed, is the belief that photographs work in serial or collective fashion (in books, reports, or maybe just a haphazard collection of prints), and, in that guise, bring about a consensus of feeling about their subjects.

Portraiture of various sorts dominated the museum’s walls, though an important conceit of the exhibition was to reveal the many ways portraiture, as a photographic convention with particular compositional and stylistic habits, developed hand-in-hand with shifting historical ideas about “community” and “social grouping.” In Beato’s pictures of the Japanese, for example, viewers are asked to understand portraiture as being informed by a mixture of western European ethnography and the ukiyo-e print; in Curtis’s portraits of Native Americans, by American ethnography and pictorialism; and in Goldblatt’s images of white South Africans, the snapshot aesthetic and the tensions of apartheid.

In each case, the photographs function not only as a means of assigning a collective identity but also of naming and exploring social differences (of race, class, nationalist belonging) as they helped to forge or construct communities. There is thus a critical edge to Beyond the Familiar that, in some cases, attempts to understand the photographic projects as belonging to histories of social division and inequality and, in other cases, sees them as self-consciously investigating those histories. In the case of the former, the curators’ critiques are offered lightly. Emerson’s pictures of the haymakers and harvesters of East Anglia, for example, explored the fallout of industrialization and tourism on farming ways of life; but they were also indulging in a kind of nostalgia that was most often the privilege of educated urbanites and rarely the choice, or self-image, of the East Anglians themselves. The same was true of Beato’s pictures of the “pre-modern” Japanese or of Curtis’s photographs of “vanishing” Native Americans. Contrast these projects to later ones, which are more searing in their exploration of social division, like Goldblatt’s unsympathetic portrayal of white South Africans who possessed “a deep contempt and fear of blacks,” as the wall caption explains, or of Norfleet’s savage depiction of clubby, well-to-do easterners, properly manicured, decked out in their blazers and fedoras, and preparing for an afternoon on the yacht or down at the tennis courts. “Who’s going to the party?” the photographer seems to ask with her camera. “Why, all the right people,” her subjects happily answer.

The exhibition ends with pictures by Mthethwa, whose colorful, nearly life-size portraits of black South Africans in a sense brings the survey full circle. Whereas the earliest projects assert a kind of confidence in divining the terms of identity and social cohesion, Mthethwa’s refrains from overarching generalizations. And whereas the earliest are as much the product of the photographer’s desires as they are of the sitters’ own efforts at self-representation, Mthethwa’s images, as is typical of nearly all his varied work, are insistently collaborative, his sitters taking a strong hand in how they want to appear before the camera. His usual portraits, of individuals at home, are as stunning in their attention to the makeshift interior decorations (wallpaper cobbled together from pinups and newspaper and magazine advertisements) and saturated hues (of mixed-and-matched color schemes) as they are of the proud men and women themselves. The pictures capture a dignity and social particularity in the postcolonial world that is not reducible to a single or easily nameable community.

The second exhibition, Liu Zheng’s The Chinese, presents a recent museum purchase, the photographer’s seven-year project undertaken between 1994 and 2001 to document China in the throes of a post-Tiananmen Square society. Different in scope than Beyond the Familiar, The Chinese is no less panoramic in its ambitions, though perhaps more chilling. Liu, a photojournalist at Beijing’s Worker’s Daily when he began the project, took monthly trips throughout the countryside, seeking out those poorer Chinese who were increasingly being left behind during China’s efforts at modernization. Following the cues of Sander and Diane Arbus, whom he has acknowledged as important influences, Liu pictured common laborers, beggars, strippers, prostitutes, transsexuals, prisoners, fetuses, the physically mutilated and disabled, the overworked, the dead. He developed an eye for portraits of older Chinese personalities who were disappearing or being transformed into a tourist’s caricature: old priests, circus performers, acrobats, theater hands. All the same size and format, the 120 black-and-white portraits that comprise The Chinese posit a strangely egalitarian dystopia in which all the sitters are given a place in a world going to seed. China may eventually blossom into a post-Maoist, increasingly Westernized, certainly wealthier Communist state, but Liu’s people will never reap its benefits. The repeated invocations of dead and mutilated bodies suggest that some morbid (or insignificant) ending is in store for them. Like the sitters in Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, Liu’s Chinese are never identified as individuals but referred to as social types, people without names of their own. Like the people of Arbus’s subcultures, Liu’s evocations waver between sympathy and disgust, fascination and repulsion.

I had seen individual pictures from Liu’s project but never the entire series at once. When encountered singly, the photographs of transsexuals or the physically disabled can come off as oddities, as the product of a chance encounter that nearly every street photographer may occasionally document. Viewing them as a group, the project is grimmer, the desire to uncover the detritus of contemporary Chinese society more determined, the effort to produce a picture of human despair and misery more comprehensive, the emotional pitch draining. If Beyond the Familiar relied partly on historical systems of social differentiation, The Chinese understands that difference to be abject and total.

Anthony W. Lee
Professor, Department of Art History, Mount Holyoke College

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