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Alternative Views: Photography, Self-Representation and Fact in Contemporary American Art and Culture

Thu, November 9, 4:00 to 5:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Gold Coast, Concourse Level West Tower

Session Submission Type: Paper Session: Talk Format


Historically bounded to science and fact, the photograph has acted as both tool of the oppressor and as a space of upheaval and resistance in the United States. This panel considers the ways artists use what Susan Sontag termed “the shady commerce between art and truth” as a conceptual and compositional tool. As a medium designed to delineate and define, the photograph continues to perpetuate the limits of identity categories, including nationality, race, class, gender and sexuality, well after cultural critics began calling photography's documentary “truthiness” into question. Yet as “Alternative Views” shows, many contemporary artists in the United States appropriate photography’s master narratives and relationships to power, racialization and patriarchy to create subversive and subjective representations of themselves that resist dominant visual narratives.

This panel of scholars, curators and artists examines the aesthetics and politics of the photograph, fact, and self-representation in contemporary United States culture from a variety of perspectives. Bringing critical race art history to bear on the artwork of Genevieve Gaignard, Delphine Sims problematizes the ways that photographs pass as proof in her analysis of performative self-portraiture created by ethnically ambiguous artists of color. Troubling both notions of racial passing and the stability of photographic veracity, Sims raises important questions about the artist’s role in complicating contemporary identity constructions. Challenging the photograph’s ability to portray normative American family relations, artist and scholar Lindsay Hutchens uses photography to reveal the nuanced, intimate, and incomplete ways family constructs the self. Hutchens’ work traverses public representations and private feeling to navigate societal expectations of “real” family ties, bringing her position as an experienced photographer to this conversation about represented selves. In her analysis of artist LaToya Ruby Frazier’s collaborative self-portraits, Natalie Zelt argues that Frazier uses photographic history and realism as a tool to point out acts of erasure in both image and political environments. Showing the ways that Frazier’s work traffics in the aesthetics of social realism and self-consciously constructed portraiture, Zelt argues that Frazier’s portraits craft a subversive form of photographic fact that is both felt and factual. Mark Menjivar’s Retorno series similarly manipulates the photograph’s presumed veracity in his portraits of the landscape and memory sketched by Salvadoran diaspora communities. In her discussion of Menjivar’s work, Tatiana Reinoza investigates the ways that the photograph functions as both autobiographical and as an alternative archive of conflict for those forced to flee. Weaving together concurrent themes across these presentations, chair and commentator Robb Hernández will push the panelists to consider the implications of their work and analyses as acts of resistance.

From a range of interdisciplinary and intersectional positions, each of the panelists’ presentations will explore: How can identities be both real and constructed in a “post-identity,” “post-fact” and “post-photography” environment? What methods of dissent are evidenced in self-centered photographic practice and what might be their limits? And what spaces of resistance can the photograph open amid a contemporary cultural landscape untethered from conventional arbiters of fact?

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