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America is a country of immigrants, and the perspective of foreigners, newcomers and outsiders has always played a large a role in the history of contemporary American photography. Immigrants often have a way of showing us that which we cannot see for ourselves. Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book of photographs that has come to define our pictorial perceptions of the 1950s, is an easy but unforgettable example. A Swiss national traveling through on a Guggenheim Fellowship, Frank took photographs that are famously known for stripping America of her pretensions and leaving the raw reality of our country exposed. In keeping with the tradition of outsiders looking in on our culture, a small exhibition on the first floor of the International Center of Photography, titled Perspectives 2012, showcases the work of three non-American photographers — Chien-Chi Chang, Anna Shteynshleyger and Greg Girard — who all focus their cameras on different facets of American life.
These three artists photograph communities they personally know well: the tiny apartments of Chinese immigrants working and living in New York’s Chinatown; the quiet, suburban lives of an Orthodox Jewish community in rural Illinois; the disturbingly Americanized US military bases in the Pacific. They depict them, however, with the removal and detachment of photographers documenting foreign phenomena, and there is a tension in the photographs between the viewpoints of an outsider looking in and an insider looking out. This show exemplifies the fact that though perspectives may vary from photographer to photographer, it takes a great eye to simultaneously show us what we see and what we miss about different communities.
Chien-Chi Chang, a Taiwanese photographer, began his project, titled China Town, in 1992. For seventeen years Chang has followed a group of Chinese families who, for mostly economic reasons, were forced to send a husband, father or son to America to work. Chang documents these men’s bifurcated lives, thousands of miles away from their families, working only to send money home. With shadowy black-and-white images, he captures the claustrophobic and lonely feel of immigrant life, showing men living in tight quarters, always alone, sometimes eating, drinking or talking on the telephone.
Though the images feel emotionally distant, they convey both a deep sense of displacement and our great ability to adapt. In one of his most compelling and creative images, Chang shows a middle-aged Asian man drinking from a bowl of soup while holding chopsticks in his other hand. He sits on a tiny New York fire escape overlooking a busy street full of cars, wearing only his underwear. Though the man outwardly seems to be perfectly at home, the composition of the image feels so precarious you can’t help but think of it as metaphor for these men’s lives.
Following the wives and children living at home in China, Chang captures the familiar comfort and sense of tradition that comes with staying where you are from. In contrast with his images taken in Chinatown, the women and children are shown in vivid color film. These are often paired with their black-and-white, masculine counterparts, but Chang’s images and pairings are often too obvious and predictable. Sadly, the photographs seem to tell us very little about people living within them. Immigrant life is a well-worn topic in contemporary American photography, and therefore requires a fresh take on the subject; it’s in this area that many of Chang’s pictures fall flat.
Russian photographer Anna Shteynshleyger tackles a different aspect of the outsider perspective in her series of photographs titled City of Destiny (2004–09). She was born in Soviet Russia, but her family immigrated to Gaithersburg, Maryland when she was fifteen. She says of her experience here, “Living in Gaithersburg didn’t just make me into a photographer, it made me find God. It was just that bad.” She embraced Orthodox Judaism and later married within the Orthodox community, moving with her husband to the Chicago suburb Des Plaines, where City of Destiny is photographed. Much of her work is about the “separateness” she feels within her own chosen community.
What Shteynshleyger captures best in City of Destiny are the appearances and customs of the people she lives among. With the meticulous attention to detail of a draftswoman, she photographs the clothing, hairstyles, food and religious accessories that are the familiar indicators of Orthodox separateness. In soft and muted colors she photographs couples sharing intimate moments, children cloaked in playfulness, boarded-up houses and the general detritus of domesticity. Slipped into this series are also quiet and still landscapes, depicting leggy bushes, pristine snow, imperfect grass and cracked mud. One of Shteynshleyger’s most thought-provoking photographs is titled “Seascape.” In an interior lit with defused sunlight, a worn mattress fills the frame, ripped and torn with tufts of batting protruding from inside. “Seascape” acts as a kind of question mark for Orthodox intimacy and sexuality.
Unfortunately, Shteynshleyger’s photographs look so impersonal that they almost feel judgmental. Viewing City of Destiny without knowing that the artist is part of the community, the photographs seem exploitative as they objectively describe the belief system that underpins the Des Plaines community. Visually walking through Shteynshleyger’s Orthodox community can feel equally surreal to being a tourist driving through Intercourse to marvel at the Amish. Whether or not we bring preconceived notions to her work, there is a coldness in her photographs that makes them feel dismissive of her subjects. This makes her work susceptible to the old criticisms aimed at other photographers known for documenting “strange” and “other” communities, from Diane Arbus and her love of “freaks” to Steve McCurry’s exploitation of the “exotic.” Shteynshleyger’s work could be better served by a small amount of investment on the part of the artist.
By far the strongest series of photographs shown in Perspectives 2012 is the work of Canadian photographer Greg Girard, whose project Half the Surface of the World documents the many American military bases scattered throughout the Pacific. The title of Girard’s series, which was shot mostly in Japan, Korea and Guam, refers to the fact that this region, designated by the Pentagon as PACOM, covers half the surface of the world. Of all the marginalized communities represented in this exhibition, the small American colonies that Girard captures, tiny replicants scattered overseas, feel the most unfamiliar. While it’s common knowledge that America never demilitarized after WWII or the Korean War, we never actually see what that means. With his provocative series of photographs, Girard manages to question our military presence in the Pacific by simply showing that we are there. There is an undeniable otherworldly quality to the pictures, full of landscapes dotted with tanks, prefab houses, suburban lawns and fighter jets.
Girard visits and photographs the largest and most influential bases in the Pacific — Okinawa, Yokosuka, Andersen Air Force Base and others — all of which were established more than sixty years ago and are still operating today. Girard’s photographs are divided between showing us the activities taking place on the bases themselves, with navy, army and marine personnel training for combat, and what happens off the bases in the residential complexes built by the military. This juxtaposition between the constant preparation for impending violence and the everyday lives of displaced soldiers and their families is quite a powerful one. The photographs not only capture the lives of the displaced, but they also suggest the obsolescence of our ongoing military presence in these countries.
With America’s political climate being what it is today, it’s hard not to see the attitude of always stressing difference emerging in art as well, and Perspectives 2012 seems to raise the question: should photography be divisive or informative? I think most viewers prefer the latter, images that portray the perspective of the “other” with an awareness that we ourselves lack. Photography can enable us to gain insight into people and communities we have overlooked, forgotten or simply misunderstood, and remind us that sometimes those people can be ourselves and those communities our own. Still, while the photographers in this exhibition all bring exposure to peripheral groups within American society, their photographs are disappointingly one-dimensional; they seem to rely on the public’s constant desire for something “strange.” Perhaps it is a testament of the times that even these self-separating groups don’t seem as bizarre to us now as mainstream America.
Perspectives 2012: Anna Shteynshleyger, Greg Girard, Chien-Chi Chang continues at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas, Midtown, Manhattan) until May 6.