From its very beginnings, photography has been inextricably linked with racial typography, pornography, commodification and exploitation. This deeply questioning collection of 300 color photos and illustrations, along with essays, accompanies a national touring exhibition curated by the International Center of Photography's Wallis and artist Fusco (The Bodies that Were Not Ours). The collection exhumes and re-examines the "dark" underbelly of American race relations as related by historical photographs, and along the way makes valuable re-discoveries, including that the "Migrant Mother" in Dorothea Lange's celebrated Depression-era photograph, Florence Thompson, was of Cherokee descent. Aleta M. Ringlero relates how one response to her research on "Prairie Pinups," erotic photographs of American Indian women, was "we like to forget those kinds of photographs are in our collection." Demonstrating the book's intent to raise questions, not bury them, the contributors are allowed to disagree with each other: Kobena Mercer ultimately finds that Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of black men "can be seen as a subversive deconstruction of the hidden racial and gendered axioms of the nude," while Lauri Firstenberg finds them "a contemporary example of photography's categorization and classification of subjects by stereotype." Despite their number, however, the images are underplayed-sparsely scattered through texts and printed small, they are left largely unexplained (in fact, the footnotes, placed directly underneath the photographs, are easily mistaken for captions) and photographs cited in the texts often seem not included. It will be a disappointment to many readers that the actual photographic evidence, difficult as it is to look at, is not an equal partner in this much-needed examination of the painful histories behind American identity.
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Coco Fusco is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and director of graduate study for the Visual Arts Division at Columbia University's School of the Arts. Fusco has curated exhibitions for London's ICA, the Brooklyn Museum, and several other venues. Brian Wallis is director of exhibitions and chief curator at the International Center of Photography. In addition to writing several books on contemporary art, he has contributed to many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.