Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self
Exhibition | 2003

An exhibition that surveys racial taxonomy in American photography from the 1840s to the present.

Photography is the means of recording human likeness that has been used most often to describe and construct American identity. It has played a key role in shaping ideas about race and nation. Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self is the first comprehensive look at how ideas about race have shaped our understanding of what Americans look like and the role that photography has played in conveying those messages.

For most of our country’s history, access to U.S. citizenship has been restricted on the basis of race. To this day, evolving theories about race inform our ideas about who Americans are and what they look like. Most people these days realize that there is no scientific basis for race and that there is no real proof of any group's racial inferiority. Nonetheless, race remains with us as a very compelling myth. It is part of our American heritage. It has been one of the most important and powerful means of determining who is and who is not considered American, and who should be entitled to the full benefits of American citizenship. Photography has been the most effective form of image making for supporting and debunking the myth of race.

It is often assumed that shows about race are really nothing more than shows about racism, in which photographers demonstrate that they are either racist or that they are against racism. This show explores racial imagery in a different way. Regardless of whether one believes that racism persists in American society, it is undeniable that racial iconography still circulates in our culture and, thus, in American photography as well. The exhibition is divided into five sections that look at race as a distinct set of visual symbols that are manifested through a variety of photographic techniques. Taken altogether, Only Skin Deep is about how photography works to make us “see” race.


Looking Up / Looking Down
The images in this category promote the idea that racial hierarchies are based in truth, or they subvert this assertion through irony and parody. When photography was introduced in 1839, the notion that humanity was organized in a racial hierarchy was widely accepted in the United States. According to this worldview, the diversity of human beings’ physical characteristics was taken as evidence of the “fact” of racial difference. Scientific racism attempted to link physical traits with invisible group characteristics such as intelligence or a propensity for social deviance. This view, often associated with eugenics, remained firmly entrenched until the mid-twentieth century, when its use by the Nazis compelled the international scientific community to formally repudiate it. Nonetheless, the legacy of these nineteenth-century ideas about race lives on: we still speak of race as synonymous with differences based on skin color or human typologies.

All for One / One for All
The photographs in this category suggest that some people can stand for all Americans or can embody an "ideal" American, while others can only represent specific ethnic or racial types. Over the past 150 years, numerous photographers have created images that “stand for” American ideals, showing us what “good” Americans look like and identifying those who do not belong in this category. Photographers were often enjoined to catalogue specific racial and ethnic types, in keeping with popular theories about human diversity. While many photographs of ethnic types were produced for anthropological studies and military and state records, this sort of imagery has also been extremely popular as mass entertainment and has regularly found its way into advertising, fashion, and art. Many contemporary artists have reflected on this legacy by recalling and recasting photographic techniques that were developed in the nineteenth century to communicate these ideas.

Humanized / Fetishized
This group of images contrasts photographs designed to emphasize a subject's individuality with those that objectify their subjects, replacing things for people or treating people like things. To promote racial equality or to reveal injustices, photographers have sometimes produced “positive images” to counter denigrating popular representations of ethnic groups. These works are often designed to elicit the sympathies of viewers by "humanizing" their subjects, making them appear to be more attractive, more patriotic, or more industrious. These attempts to elevate and humanize photographic subjects stand in contrast to images of people posed in ways that make them look like objects, such as sculptures, toys, or monsters. The act of substituting an object for a person evokes the idea of the fetish, in the sense that an inanimate thing is made to represent a living being. This gesture reinforces the notion that race is something fixed and concrete, rather than a compelling but fluctuating fiction.

Assimilate / Impersonate
American culture is rife with examples of people's desire to adopt another racial identity or to temporarily masquerade as a member of another race. However, the capacity to transform one’s appearance takes on different meanings depending on the status and identity of the subject. In some cases, the gesture is meant to suggest the individual’s ability to transform himself or herself; in others contexts, it has been motivated by larger social and political agendas. With the adoption of the American myth of the melting pot in the early twentieth century, for example, an official policy of assimilation was applied to immigrants and ethnic minorities. Donning costumes that caricatured members of nonwhite groups as savage, excessively emotive, irrational, and oversexed, the people who posed for these photographs expressed commonly held notions of the “wild side” of the self suppressed by Western rationalism and social rigidity.

Progress / Regress
This part of the exhibition also extends the question of race beyond the body into space, showing how ideas about race can be projected onto natural and man-made landscapes. The prevailing ideas about race in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conflated human evolution with technological advancement. This worldview, known as Social Darwinism, suggested that the greater military and industrial power of Europeans was evidence of their racial superiority and implied that their ability to dominate others was evidence of their heightened capacity for survival. The visualization of Social Darwinist ideas often involves demonstrating how some racial groups represent progress and America's future, while others are designated as throwbacks that evoke a preindustrial past that is often both romanticized and infantilized.

International Center of Photography, New York
Seattle Art Museum
San Diego Museum of Art and Museum of Photographic Arts

An Exhibition catalogue edited by Fusco and Brian Wallis with 19 scholarly essays and over 300 illustrations was published by Harry Abrams Inc.