Examining Photography's Link to Stereotypes and Identity

ICP follows "Strangers," its ambitious, sprawling, and provocative triennial exhibition, with another ambitious, sprawling, etc., show that could easily have had the same title. "Only Skin Deep," subtitled "Changing Visions of the American Self," investigates photography's role in creating and transforming our sense of national identity, first by stereotyping black, Hispanic, Native, and even white Americans, then by gradually dismantling, if not demolishing, those stereotypes. Curator Brian Wallis, who collaborated with Coco Fusco, sets up the show's argument: "[R]ace and nation—and, indeed, photography itself—are fictions, cultural constructions that shape our social interactions. If photographs are not inherently truthful representations of identity, but must be read to find their meaning, can a different reading of these images break down their distorting stereotypes?"

With more than 300 historic and contemporary photos and a smattering of videos, the show is diffuse, almost impossible to digest in one viewing, and offers no easy answers to this question. But the range of material is so rich and allusive that thoughtful viewers can come to their own conclusions without feeling hectored or manipulated. No question, many of these images—of slaves, lynchings, KKK members—are disturbing, but the show's overall tone is bracingly skeptical and witty.

Gordon Parks: Emerging Man, Harlem (1952)
photo: ©Gordon Parks/Collection of ICP
Gordon Parks: Emerging Man, Harlem (1952)

That barbed humor kicks off the show in Miguel Calderon's six-panel satire of street-level arms escalation, Evolución del Hombre, and crops up again in work by Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, and others. Rather than distract from the show's seriousness, these flashes of humor help underline the range and subtlety of its intelligence. Barbara Kruger's Your Fictions Become History serves as an ideal keynote to a collection of images that plumb the depths of our willful ignorance and confusion about race while suggesting a fuller understanding of America's multicultural identity.

 
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