When you walk into Rayko Photo Center with the intention of viewing their new gallery show, it won’t be immediately obvious where you should look. The elaborate workspace and gallery in downtown San Francisco offers racks of photo prints and high ceilings with vintage cameras mounted onto them. After a moment of orientation, however, you’ll see a Caucasian man standing exceptionally upright in a grey collared shirt, dark green Dockers and a marble-patterned tie with the same uninspiring color pallet as a motel duvet cover. This man is the subject of one of three photographs that are hung beneath the exhibit title, “My White Friends.”
Centered within the square frame, the blonde-haired, middle-aged man is standing in front of a similarly dark green station wagon parked in front of what looks like a brick apartment complex, carrying a briefcase by the padded shoulder strap. By the looks of him, there’s nothing exceptional about this man. This is the type of person that most people would categorize simply as “normal.” But that just may be the point that photographer Myra Greene is trying to make.
Originally from New York City, Greene received her M.F.A. from the University of New Mexico and is now an associate professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. For a decade now, Greene, who is of African American heritage, has been exploring how photography represents race. In the past she has done this by photographing herself, as seen in her 2004-2007 project entitled “Character Recognition” wherein she made photographs of her facial features, asking whether her physical appearance defined her character.
In “My White Friends,” Greene turns the camera to those whom she surrounds herself with. “Throughout my life, I have been questioned on why I have so many white friends, as though my African-American heritage should dictate a different social circle,” she expresses in her artist statement. By focusing on her Caucasian peers, she presents the question of where the racial implications of a photograph lie. Do her photographs capture a racial truth, an objective “whiteness”? Does the viewer create a racial fiction in their decoding of the photograph, or is the photographer responsible for encoding it with nuances that allude and contribute to notions of race?
With the photos, Greene does not offer an answer to these questions as much as simply propose and demonstrate them. One statement that the photographs do make, however, is that what contributes to a viewer’s racial interpretation lies in the subtleties of the picture.
It seems that Greene purposefully set her subjects in positions and contexts that align with the white middle-class stereotype in order to expose it.
The majority of pictures take place in front of suburban houses. One man sits on his red motorcycle in his front yard, staring down the viewer with pride. One blonde woman in a polo shirt and a golfing glove poses next to her pink golfing bag at the driving range. An old, bearded man sits in his well-landscaped back yard underneath a tree growing out of a circle of bowling balls. The inconspicuous elements of the pictures connect with their subjects in a way that is both difficult to articulate and disturbing, forcing the viewer to confront his or her own racial associations.
Despite being conceptually interesting, the photographs themselves are nothing spectacular to look at. Viewers are often drawn toward the majestic or bizarre, but the content of Greene’s photographs are exceptionally average. Their simplicity, though, lends them a sense of honesty that doesn’t initially amaze, but manages to linger in the back of your mind like a bitter aftertaste.
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