Friday, March 1, 2013

Mira Greene's White Friends

A new book of photography -- Chicago-based Honorary Southern Photographer Mira Greene's My White Friends  -- engages us powerfully with issues of race, history, identity, and family. These are all perennial concerns of Southern culture, and of course race is at the center of all of them.

We who are Southerners, and think of ourselves as white, tend to believe that we are "just folks," that is, we are the people, and people who are different from us are a different kind of people. The practice of dividing people up, of categorizing people according to this or that set of characteristics, is an ancient and very human trait.

Mira Greene's work has been about making photographs that are both works of art and also an interrogation of ways in which photography has been used as a tool to objectify and classify people into social types. In this work, she poses the question "How do we look at black people and recognize their character?"

Her portfolio Character Recognition (2006-2007), for example, consists of self-portraits, close-ups of her eyes, lips, nose, and ears,  in black glass ambrotypes that resemble taxonomic photographs of early anthropologists, criminologists, and psychologists who believed that detailed measurements of the body could reveal signs of individual character.

In My White Friends, she turns the tables, turning her camera outward to see if she can figure out whether a photograph can capture and depict the nuances of whiteness. The title itself echoes that pathetic line of Southern white self-justification; you know what I mean, "Why, some of my best friends are . . . . . "

The exceptional depth of Greene's engagement with these issues is why she is an Honorary Southern Photographer. Her work helps us understand more fully the Southern experience.

Greene is having a show of this work right now at the Williams College Museum of Art, up through April 14th, 2013.

The folks at Williams College say this about her work: "Greene’s portraits examine her white companions as archetypal figures, a collectivity, and a racial group. The subjects’ physical bodies and the spaces they inhabit signify whiteness as a complex cultural construct that raises questions about status, cultural and racial norms, and privilege."

I'm not sure what Greene sees when she looks at these images, but what I see is folks who are so completely comfortable with being who they are, with being white people, that its a little scary.  As someone put it, the tragedy of Southern history is that while black people can never forget the legacy of slavery, white people can.

All this, in spite of the fact that, as any biologist will tell you, race doesn't exist. There is no biological essence that makes one person black, or another person white, or another person any of the other conventional classifications of human type.

And, of course, in the South, when different kinds of people get together and really talk about their histories and backgrounds, answering those basic questions we all want to know when we meet -- "Where you from" and "who's your Daddy" -- we have a way of finding that we are, really, cousins, whether we want to be or not.

Those basic units of Southern identity -- race and family -- got mixed up a long time ago by people we might not want to recognize as our ancestors who got up to behaviors we probably do not want to imagine under circumstances we would really like to forget.

Anyone who thinks he or she has a clear notion of blackness and whiteness in Southern, even American, culture, needs to read Daniel Sharfstein's The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White  (2011).

One of the things Sharfstein notes is that in South Carolina, of all places, in the 19th century, when the social world was basically divided into two groups, slave and free, the legislature defined the difference between being black and white in terms of social condition. If you were free, and especially if you owned slaves, you were white. If you were enslaved, you were black.

A South Carolina legislator said at the time that if ancestry was the key to racial difference, then no one in South Carolina could be sure he was white.

But that concept of race, a concept rich with fluid categories and arbitrary distinctions, seems always beyond us. Greene's move here, to ask whose of us who think of ourselves as white, to think about the construction of categories, and the power that categories bring, is really valuable to the ongoing conversation  of Southern history.

This is among the the best kinds of things that photography can do. Especially Southern photography.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, thought provoking post, John. Atlanta hosts the Black Arts Festival, a celebration of the African American cultural experience and its influence on artistic expression. Ms. Greene's provocative photographic treatise on "what is white, what is black" and how our notions of race and art define us, would be an interesting and challenging addition to this celebration. I visited her web site and am left with many questions...and challenges.