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"Only Skin Deep: Photography’s Role in Shaping America’s Identity"
2004-03-25 until 2004-06-13
Seattle Art Museum
Seattle, WA, USA

This spring the Seattle Art Museum will present an engaging exhibition which questions photography’s role in shaping America’s understanding of nation, race, and selfhood. Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self references issues around race and national identity with a contemporary viewpoint and offers a critical rereading of the history of photography, which has been the primary method of recording events and images from the mid-19th century to the present. Organized by the International Center of Photography,

The curators Coco Fusco, Associate Professor in the Visual Arts Division at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and Brian Wallis, ICP’s Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator, explore America’s stereotypical notions of race through more than 300 historical and contemporary images representing ethnic groups throughout the United States.

“If photographs are chiefly responsible for perpetuating myths of American identity, can a different reading of these representations break down distorting stereotypes?” asks the curators. Only Skin Deep draws from a wide range of genres and movements such as portraiture, social documentary, science photography, and landscape. Artists in the exhibition include Will Soule, Carleton E. Watkins, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, Edward Steichen, Tina Barney, Glenn Ligon, Ana Mendieta, Pedro Meyer, Patrick Nagatani, Catherine Opie, Paul Pfeiffer, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, and Lorna Simpson, among many others.

Images in Only Skin Deep are arranged into five thematic sections designed to demonstrate how racial thinking is a comparative process. The five sections are: Looking Up/Looking Down, All for One/One for All, Humanized/Fetishized, Assimilate/Impersonate, and Progress/Regress. Looking Up/Looking Down demonstrates how racial hierarchies can either be idealized or undermined by photographers through irony and parody. All for One/One for All presents photographs that suggest an “ideal” American while others can represent a specific ethnic or racial group. Humanized/Fetishized contrasts photographs which aim to objectify and dehumanize their subject with photographs designed to reveal the subject’s identity. 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 images of racial groups represent America’s future while others evoke its pre-industrial past; photographs in this thematic section also include natural and man-made landscapes which project ideas about race.

Prior to its presentation in Seattle, Only Skin Deep will be on view at the International Center for Photography (Dec.12, 2003–Feb.29, 2004) in New York. After its presentation at SAM, the exhibition will tour throughout the United States. Accompanying the exhibition will be an interactive website, Only Skin Deep Online, which features a National Survey of nearly 200 contemporary artists; and a fully illustrated 416-page catalog, which will be available at the museum store and includes 300 illustrations, critical essays by the curators and other leading authorities.

Gordon Parks b. 1912
Mrs. Ella Watson, Government Chairwoman,
Washington DC, 1942
Gelatin Silver Print
20 x 16 in.
Courtesy of the Artist

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