THROUGH A STRANGER'S EYES: Sometime in the late 18th century, lovable old Benjamin Franklin gave a speech denouncing German immigrants.
He complained the new foreigners didn't speak English the way normal Americans did, insisted on babbling in their own incomprehensible language and holed up in their own settlements and drained the limited resources of the new government.
This nasty anecdote is a new one for me: Franklin is of sainted memory in Philadelphia, where I come from. But Franklin was prescient about the course of much that is positive in American life, so it makes a kind of sense that he also gave early voice to the fear of foreigners now so much a part of our national character. Change Ben Franklin's name to Pat Buchanan's, substitute Spanish for German, and you've got an up-to-the-minute Buchanan campaign speech.
The Franklin story was recounted last week by Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, at a press conference opening an ambitious exhibition about immigration at the Center for Creative Photography. The three-part show will occupy the center's galleries for the next six months. A co-production of the Center, the San Diego museum and The Friends of Photography in San Francisco, Points of Entry uses photography to explore the always precarious place of immigrants in this nation of immigrants.
"Immigration is part of the most current and most shrill elements of the public agenda," Ollman said. "But the discussion takes place without much historical background...Our exhibit attempts to put our history in some context."
Photography, he noted, is the perfect medium for exploring the subject. "Many immigrants found very little of what they came for. There was a gap between the images and the reality of America. Photography is very good at illustrating that gap."
Reframing America, the first of the three parts, on display through November 5, looks at the nation through immigrants' own eyes. Curator Terence Pitts, director of the Center, selected seven immigrant photographers who were active in the 1920s through the '40s. Mostly émigrés from Eastern Europe, they include the German-born John Guttman, who shot pictures of swastika-toting Americans celebrating the rise of Nazism, and Austrian Lisette Model, who frequently depicted impoverished women on New York City streets. The German team of Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel snapped a chilling image of armed California strike breakers, and Hagel's picture of Mississippi children in an "orphan band" is haunting.
"I picked seven who had studied and learned their art abroad," Pitts said. "So their work is different from American photography of the time in formal terms...They had a fresh eye for what America looked like in social and political terms. They had a powerful reaction to racism, to the horrible conditions under which African Americans lived, to the...prejudice toward Japanese Americans."
The second show, co-curated by Ollman and New York Times art critic Vicki Goldberg, abandons the art photography premise of Pitts' and turns instead toward a documentary history of immigration. A Nation of Strangers, opening November 19 and continuing through January 7, "is about immigrants looked at by other people," Ollman said. "There are Ellis Island photos and pictures from yesterday of Haitians on rafts. It's about the immigrant as the 'other,' the foreigner coming to our shores."
It includes more than 200 items, beginning with a diagram illustrating the most efficient placement of African captives in the hold of the typically overstuffed slave ship. Daguerreotypes from the 1840s show slave quarters and an early Chinatown, along with photographs from the heyday of European immigration around the turn of the century. Contemporary pictures include an image of a Hindu performing a ritual bath in New York City's East River and the displaced Hmong people of Vietnam now in their new home in upper New York state.
The final exhibition, Tracing Cultures, displays mixed-media photographic work by 12 contemporary artists, most of them immigrants, who document their feelings of cultural dislocation. It runs from January 21 through March 10. Curated by Andy Grundberg of San Francisco's The Friends of Photography, it features work by artists originally from such nations as Vietnam, Korea, Cuba and Mexico, along with work by the well-known African American photographer Carrie Mae Weems.
The Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund, which provided a major grant for the project, "challenged us to reach a larger audience," Pitts said. So folded into the exhibitions are a series of writers' and artists' lectures, and a film festival of émigré filmmakers at The Screening Room downtown.
The whole laudable project is a first for the Center, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. The three shows will first rotate among the three museums that organized them, then join together into one large powerhouse exhibition that will travel to large spaces. On the itinerary are the International Museum of Photography in Rochester and the Smithsonian.
It will be interesting to see how the show fares at the Smithsonian, where the 50th-anniversary exhibition on the American nuclear bombing of Japan took a nosedive after an onslaught of criticism from political conservatives. The images in Points of Entry are unavoidably political, documenting the imperfections in American life and the extraordinarily hard times endured by generations of immigrants.
The outspoken Ollman isn't worried.
"I would be astounded if there were no unhappiness (with the show)," he said. "But it's not art's business to avoid unhappiness...It's not bad for the arts to take a stand."
Award-winning author Demetria Martinez examines border issues in literary readings at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, September 21, at the Center for Creative Photography. UA art history grad student Betsi Meissner discuses photographer Marion Palfi at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, September 28. For program information call 621-7968.
--By Margaret Regan
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