Life through the lens at the WCMA

WCMA’s latest exhibition takes as its subject a collection of ethnographic photography in its many meanings. But like nearly any museum presentation, Beyond the Familiar: Photography and Construction of Community tends to focus as much on the artists as their subjects. The work of 10 different artists is represented, from Felice Beato’s artfully posed and contrived portraits of Japanese people as Western consumers want to see them, to Robert Frank’s evocative and fragmentary photographic catalogue of Americana in the mid twentieth century.

As curator John Stomberg elucidated in his helpful gallery talk this past Thursday afternoon, the represented artists are tied together under the loosest of terms. Their connection is revealed only by the presence of each artist’s systematic efforts to both use and chronicle the cultural mythology of their subjects. The earliest work in the exhibition shows this willingness to actively structure the culture being captured by the camera that would go out of vogue as photography developed as a portable and momentary medium.

Beato’s portraits of Japanese in full regalia, painstakingly hand-illustrated with watercolors, evidence both an antiquated conception of ethnography and an explicit (though not equivalent) relationship between photographer and subject.

Edward Curtis’ striking photographs hide their artifice behind their visual beauty, creating portraits of Native Americans that would come to figure prominently in American perception of that culture. Some depict a stylized “natural” environment for the Native Americans, while others show mundane activities accompanied by full ceremonial regalia for a better photographic effect. The obvious lack in this portion of the exhibition is the subjects’ own representation of themselves; as it stands, these works now serve to mythologize the people behind the camera as much as the ones in front of it.

The next portion of the exhibition finds photographers working closer to home, from Erna Lendai-Dircksen’s blatantly propagandistic portraits drawing similarities between Greek statue and twentieth century Germans, to August Sander’s glossy photographic attempts to reveal the human condition as written on the faces of his subjects.

Aaron Siskind, known largely as an abstract photographer, embarked on a project to document a part of New York entitled Harlem Document. His work approaches a view of the subject for aesthetics’ sake, contrasting with the blatant social intentionality of Sander and Siskind. His abstract beauty both negates the individual cultural value of his subjects and finds the unique aesthetic standard in all of them: a photo of an abandoned building draws out the play of light and shadow across its repetitious façade, while a shot of shoe shiners on the sidewalk is more interesting for its angles and contrast than any systemic cultural truth about the workers.

In the largest gallery, the inevitable attempt at capturing truth, justice and the American way finds an outlet in selections from Robert Frank’s collection The Americans. Frank subverts that inevitability, offering edgewise glimpses into a black and white American life that hints at a reality far different from the ideal. The formal beauty of his photographs doesn’t hurt either.

In the same room are also displayed large format color prints by two contemporary artists. Tina Barney works with her upper class European subjects to capture their sense of self in astonishingly detailed prints, while Zwelethu Mthethwa attempts to re-entitle his African subjects by presenting them as fiercely prideful of their homes. The vivid colors and collaborative efforts of these last carry distant echoes of Beato’s watercolored portraits at the start of the exhibition, and an antiquated working method rediscovered as a socially conscious enterprise.

Curiously, the photographers who most obviously manipulate their subjects are also the ones who most effectively disappear into the photograph, working to make the necessary questioning of photographer-subject relationship irrelevant. One of the most striking photographs in the exhibition is a portrait of an old man by Curtis that manages to encapsulate some of the fundamental tensions underlying the different works. Called Klickitat Type, his blurred face fills the camera lens, looking at the viewer with half seeing eyes and an uncomprehending expression, just slightly out of focus.