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Breaking Away From Pictures of Stereotypes

In the third section of a Smithsonian survey, black photographers go into critical mode

July 21, 2002|EMORY HOLMES II

In Todd Gray's "Odysseus," a writhing black male nude is bound with ropes, and enveloped in shadows and odd polemical texts. Bill Gaskins' "Tireka and Tamana, Easter Sunday, Baltimore, Maryland" features two self-assured young women whose formidable coiffures glisten like towers of plaited licorice. In "A Virtuous Negro's Head," Carla Williams reveals that beauty simultaneously exists as fact and mystery. And the toughs in Dennis Callwood's "Signs/Signos: In Their Own Words" series stare out, tight-mouthed and remorseless, in portraits crowded with chatter, in the form of tattoos, stylized confessionals and gangland calligraphy.

These are but a few of the images of modern African American life depicted in an exhibition of photography that opened Saturday at the Luckman Gallery on the campus of Cal State L.A.

Subtitled "A History Deconstructed," the Luckman show is the third and culminating section of the Smithsonian Institution's survey of African American photography, "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present." Based on a book by Deborah Willis, a New York University photography professor and former curator of collections at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for African American History and Culture, the survey opened in 2000, with 300 images in all. "A History Deconstructed" represents works from 1980 through 2000, including 70 images from 35 artists.

The book and the survey got their start when Willis was an undergraduate at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). "I grew up in a family of photographers," Willis says, "but I was really concerned that there were no African American photographers in my history books. We only knew of blacks as struggling, as running away from slavery and as survivors. But there had to be another story. I decided to do a research paper for my history class. Where were the other photographers? That was 25 years ago. And that's how I began this work."

The survey looked at photographers at the very beginning of the medium's history. In another section, it followed African American photography through the civil rights era, from the 1940s through the 1970s.

But, Willis says, the photographers in the third part of the survey, which makes up the Luckman show, are different from the documentarians, commercial photographers and photojournalists who came before them. They have been trained in art school and transformed by the culture of hip-hop, among other phenomena. Their collected works can be viewed as both a critique and a demolition of stereotypical motifs.

"Basically these artists are looking at the past and deconstructing and reconstructing contemporary experiences," Willis said by phone from her New York studio. "They use symbolism and expressive ways of telling stories, as Willie Middlebrook does with the body, and the same with Todd Gray, where he's looking at the male figure and writing on it."

The images are broken into five categories: "Street Photography and Cultural Landscape," "The Constructed Image," "Portraits," "Landscapes" and "Digital Imagery." Some of the photographs have been altered, cropped, torn or otherwise manipulated, and they resemble paintings, sculptures, collages or mixed-media works.

"They all start off with a camera, with film and with darkrooms. I see photography as being constructed, or abstracted," she explains, "but it is first and foremost a photographic image."

Middlebrook, one of 11 Los Angeles-based artists included in the Luckman collective, is represented by a 20-by-24-inch self-portrait, part of a series he began a decade ago while in a 30-day residence at the Light Works photography program in upstate New York. "I wanted to show that I could come up with an image that, one, has color, and two, looks very painterly," Middlebrook said. "Using no gimmicks, no computers, no double exposures, just me and a black-and-white negative, paper, chemicals and darkroom."

Dennis Callwood, another L.A. artist, collaborates with graffiti taggers and gang members--he takes photos, they add color and text to the images in a process that has been dubbed photo-fusion. The series began when he was teaching photography to incarcerated gang kids.

He kept forgetting their street nicknames. "So I decided why don't I just give the kid the photograph and let him put his name on it," Callwood said. "I gave a photograph to one kid and he jerked it out of my hand and started writing on it. When I saw the writing, it flashed in my head that the aesthetic of the graffiti and the aesthetic of fine arts photography went together. That's when everything started to evolve."

Gray, who also adds text and draws on his photographs, sees his work as dealing with the theme of "otherness."

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