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Child of privilege: Barney’s The Young Lady (2001).

Photo: Tina Barney/Janet Borden Inc., NY

Human Interest

By Meisha Rosenberg

Beyond the Familiar

Williams College Museum of Art, through March 8

Beyond the Familiar, curated by John Stomberg, excels both as a showcase for great photography and also as a lesson in the morals of documenting cultures.

The exhibition, a kind of postmodern Family of Man, succeeds so well because it spends time exploring the worst offenses of a sub-genre—ethnographic photography—that aims to capture people as part of social groups. One of the most shocking examples is the catalog from the 1883 Colonial Exhibition in Amsterdam, which displayed 28 actual human beings from Surinam. The book is open to a page with two collotype headshots of an obviously unhappy Surinamese man, by French ethnographer Prince Roland Bonaparte. Beyond the Familiar presents such works to ask provocative questions: Can a series of portraits reveal the character of a culture? What do our social roles tell about us? And when does a photograph dehumanize its subjects?

My main quibbles with the show are the order in which photographs appear in the first room and (a related issue) the need for more historical context. The first prominent wall I encountered, given over to Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document project, makes palpable the wariness between photographer and subjects in interiors such as Apollo Theater and Storefront Church (both 1937). Siskind was, in the late 1930s, questioning the objectivity he could wield as a white man portraying African-Americans. As important and complex as these images are, they would have been more logically placed later with an expanded section on Depression-era social realism (and the wall text should have stated Siskind was white).

Better for chronology’s sake to start with the glass case showing the Surinamese man (along with a number of fascinating pseudo-ethnographic woodcuts and engravings from the 15th through 18th centuries); then move to prints by Peter Henry Emerson. Emerson’s Poacher—A Hare in View (ca. 1886-88) shows the stalwart hunter and his loyal hound poised on a grassy plain—a quintessentially British moment. What saves Emerson’s images from being hackneyed are the high production values of pictorialism, with its lusciously smoky backgrounds.

Edward Curtis, another pictorialist, made more than 2,000 (many would claim infamous) photogravures of Western Native Americans, often in simulated poses and incorrect tribal costumes. Yet Dusty Dress—Kalispel (1911), of a girl directly looking at the viewer, transmits a sense of her misery that can’t be reduced, no matter how rose-colored the framing. Englishman Felice Beato more obviously crossed the line into stereotype, making hand-colored, postcard-ready albumen prints of Japanese men in boats and women with pretty umbrellas. In a more extreme example of aesthetic and moral bankruptcy, Erna Lendvai-Dircksen made propaganda for the Nazis. Her volume The Face of the German People is open to a page showing crinkle-eyed elder country folk, while another book juxtaposes Aryan blonds with heads from ancient Greek art.

Adjacent to Lendvai-Dircksen’s books is a stunning wall of completely different portraits of Germans from the same period by August Sander. His sharp black-and-white photographs have a supra-real clarity that sears the intensity of his people into memory. In Corps Student (1928), a young soldier against a plain white background bears scars on his innocent-looking face; a strikingly beautiful, androgynous woman (Secretary at a Radio Station, 1931), appears to be far more than her title suggests.

After an awkward and too-brief corner with works by Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, the second, more chronologically coherent room gathers later 20th- and 21st-century photographers more consciously sensitive to cultural divides. Robert Frank’s images of a cold, masculine America (from the book The Americans), controversial when they appeared in 1959, tell how a bleak, conformist landscape can subsume its people. Combustible politics rise to the surface in black-and-white photos of Afrikaners by David Goldblatt, a Jewish South African photographer born in 1930. His carefully composed images of a hopeful-looking bride (The Bride, 1966) and National Party supporters turn group interactions into dramas about a country on the brink.

Barbara Norfleet and Tina Barney also turn the lens on white privilege with brilliant results: Norfleet’s upper-crust denizens of the Chilton Club and other tony locales, mostly in Massachusetts, inhabit parties with “all the right people” (the title of Norfleet’s 1986 book). Barney takes large color photographs of well-to-do Europeans in highly cu rated interiors looking like exotic, dangerous creatures. Zwelethu Mthethwa, also working in large- format chromogenic prints, takes photos of South Africans in their humble abodes decorated with grocery circulars. His subjects are dignified, but puzzlingly distant.

Beyond the Familiar leaves us with the realization that cultural baggage limits our ability to know anyone; yet superior work by Sander, Norfleet, and Barney show it’s worth trying.

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