These photographs are more than skin deep.

Breaking the Surface 

These photographs are more than skin deep.

My nephew is learning the names of things: "truck," "cat," "Daddy," "tree." He points to a bur oak tree (Latin name Quercus macrocarpa), distinguished by large fringed acorn cups that resemble the spiny burrs on a chestnut. Pioneers planted bur oaks to shade the open prairie grasslands. But my nephew says only "tree." Perhaps someday he'll learn there are many species of trees and that all species contain individual trees whose appearance and history are unique and, therefore, splendid. Reductive thinking is appropriate for a child. It is not appropriate for an adult. For years I have strived to be an adult, but after attending two photography exhibitions I confess that a child still resides within.

Full Frontal: Photographic Portraits at Jan Weiner Gallery and Seokjung Kim: Museum Project at the Society for Contemporary Photography provide tough but invaluable lessons in the subtleties of human prejudice -- racial, sexual, social, historical. The lessons are for everyone because it is human nature to size up, weigh, assess, label; it is how we first enter language. But only the willfully ignorant refuse to question their initial judgments, to move from the general to the specific, from Homo sapiens to human beings.

"We live in an open, pluralistic society," says Pok-Chi Lau, one of eight photographers featured in Full Frontal. "Subconsciously, however, we make stereotypes of people we do not know." Lau's nine black and white portraits, titled "Love Me All the Same: Mixed-Race Children Series," grew out of his own misconception of racial distinctions. "I came across a racial mix that was quite unusual. These unexpected 'new' races surprised me by their appearance; they did not fit my image of what looks Chinese."

Lau's close-ups depict people who may or may not be as they appear. For example, I believed "Gabriel Braddy" was a young Latino, based on his skin the shade of café latté, sensual heart-shaped mouth, piercing dark eyes, close-cropped black hair and who knows how many triggers that remained in the unconscious. I was wrong. Gabriel is African-American and Caucasian. Lau states that only "if the viewer is active can the issues of misinterpretation and misidentity be addressed." In other words, it is not enough to recognize the error; we must ask why the error was made. I asked. Here's my answer: Gabriel's features resemble those of my first husband, who was an Argentine of Italian descent. He also resembles the many nameless actors who are cast as Latino street toughs on TV cop shows. Only now do I question how many of those extras were actually Latino.

As I moved from one photo to the next, I found myself comparing and contrasting each new face with those I had (incorrectly) defined before. When there is little or no context provided for our assessments, we rely too heavily on past experience to build our vocabulary of labels.

Yet context does play a critical role in how we judge people -- and certainly how we determine the content of a photograph, as in the case of Zoe Leonard's "Jennifer Miller Does Marilyn Monroe." Leonard's pin-up (the large-scale photo is literally pinned to the wall, unframed) depicts Jennifer Miller, a real woman who has a real beard. She's sprawled naked on red satin in the same unmistakable pose as the famous Monroe, but combined with Miller's black facial and body hair the pose also brings to mind seventeenth-century paintings of Jesus crucified. In a society where many women, and now even men, are self-conscious about body hair and consequently spend hours plucking and shaving, Leonard's burlesque asks, "What is sexy?" and "Who the hell decides for us, anyway -- the makers of Nair depilatory?"

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