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.
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?
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.