Black history lesson
Double Exposure: African Americans Before and Behind the Camera
Through May 30 at the Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona State College, 1200 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach
The range of styles, techniques and media is overwhelming in Double Exposure: African Americans Before and Behind the Camera. But what grabs your attention instantly and won't let go long after you leave the galleries at the Southeast Museum of Photography is the faces.
The intense expressions on three girls' faces in Carrie Mae Weems' 2003 "May Flowers," from her series May Days Long Forgotten, suggest youth's very urgency. The varied personalities in James Van Der Zee's 1925 group photograph of New York's 369th Infantry Regiment explode from the frame. The nuanced portrait G.K. Warren made in 1876 of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, showing the gentleness around his fierce expression, speaks volumes.
The names, both of the artists and their subjects, are the stuff of legends. In his 1895 study of soprano Sissieretta Jones, Napoleon Sarony pulled out all the stops. Not only is she identified as "The Black `Adelina` Patti," the opera sensation wears a gown loaded with ornate decorations and honors. In his 1949 portrait of jazz great Billie Holiday, Carl Van Vechten shows why his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance were so significant: The artist is shown in a relaxed moment, seated serenely in an intimate setting and wearing an elegant suit that reveals her as a person rather than as a star.
Character and creativity are what count in the fascinating exhibit organized by Lisa Henry from the collection of the Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. "The visual dialogue created by this exhibition links past, present, and future generations of African American artists," Henry said in her curator's statement. "This dialogue seeks to help viewers explore the universal nature of memory and photographic representation in relation to their own personal histories."
And it does. Oh, there are quibbles: Van Der Zee's two images hardly do justice not only to his Harlem studio work of the 1920s and 1930s, with their simple dignity, but his late, great portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, taken in 1982, the year before the photographer's death at age 96. And while the dozens of early examples, mostly tiny daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes and illustrations from the pages of an 1893 edition of Frank Leslie's The Soldier in Our Civil War, are mesmerizing, they are too often anonymous, unmoored from their crucial cultural contexts.
It's the bigger, bolder and more recent examples that really shine in Double Exposure, from Gerald Cyrus' atmospheric large-format close-ups and Roy DeCarava's shadowy 1950s and 1960s studies of Harlem jazz-club scenes to Lorna Simpson's stunning 1991 mixed-media "Counting." The vertical composition, featuring a combination of enigmatic visual clues — a small round brick house, braids in an oval design — is set against evocative but equally enigmatic information. Near that brick house are two notes: "310 years ago" and "1575 bricks." And as if to instruct the hair-braider, information beside the oval hair pattern reads: "25 twists," "70 braids," "50 locks."
Just as nostalgic — and unsettling — is Deborah Willis' "Daddy's Ties," a fiber piece with photo transfers that plays with the idea of jazzy, broad, old-fashioned ties. Willis loosely stitched her enormous "ties," arranged them in a fan and adorned them with family photos, each "framed" in fraying gold thread; the piece emphasizes the universality of human experience.
In Hank Willis Thomas' ironic 1978 "Smokin Joe Ain't J'mama" from his Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America series, the underlying theme is similar, but the tone is much sharper. His digital color print shows an initially amusing scene: a young Joe Frazier wearing a ruffled bonnet, seated at a table before a stack of pancakes and a glass of milk.
But Thomas's infantilized man is no more a corporate pawn than the superheroes in Renée Cox's pop-style 1998 color print, mounted on Plexiglas. In "The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.," the fantastic figures are fighting stereotypes that loom large in the background: a box of Aunt Jemima's pancake mix and, next to it, one of Uncle Ben's rice. Humor tempers the barely repressed rage in both works, as it does in Darryl Smith's 2006 digital print, with its jarringly demeaning message. Collaged ads from old Ebony magazines make the point in "Wig Ad One," as all are of smooth, non-Afro styles.
From the earliest images, taken at the dawn of photography, to the most recent, each of the works in Double Exposure makes an eloquent statement. But taken together, in this provocative installation," they paint a vivid, often eye-opening picture. It's one to enjoy while visiting the galleries, but invites reflection later on, as the images return and haunt.[email protected]