Photography by Immigrants

Note: This piece is a work in progress essay being developed for an upcoming exhibition about how America is seen by photographs of Chinese artists, documentary photographers and non-professionals.

American photographers are often on the road, overcome with disrespectful wonder at what their country offers in the way of surreal surprises. Moralists and conscienceless despoilers, children and foreigners in their own land, they will get something down that is disappearing – and, often, hasten its disappearance by photographing it.  -Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977

Photography was invented in France by Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre in the early 1800s, and developed further in England when Henry Fox Talbot figured out a way to make negatives and print multiples of the same image. This allowed photographs to be duplicated endlessly, clearing a path for the concept that images can be everywhere and document every moment. Photography counts on multiplicity and in this way embodies an American sense of comformity, born from the ethic to efficiently manufacture products like cars, machinery, appliances, and now pictures. Now in the digital age, photography has taken on the immateriality of conceptual art. After all, this movement presaged the information age. Photographs now exist as disembodied images, shared and posted within streams of related data and commentary. Otherwise, they are unseen and appropriately occupy the “memory” within smart phones, hard drives, and digital cameras.

Even though it was invented in Europe, photography didn’t find its natural subject until Americans started using it to document their New World. Photography was as raw as the country and their growths mirrored and enhanced each other. As Americans hit the highways in the 1950s, the camera started becoming more portable, cheaper and more available to more people. Driving across America and photographing it became a rite of philosophical maturation – to have driven and seen (photographed) your country is to have truly lived the concept of America. Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant, did this in the 1950s to profound artistic effect and his book The Americans remains the portrait of America’s subconscious as it struggled to find itself in the aftermath of two World Wars and a Great Depression that left it standing as the young prince in a beaten-down, war-wary world.

Imagine what kind of excitement and awe the invention of photography must have engendered in the mid 19th Century. It was chemical science wrapped in the possibilities of art: mechanical picture-making. A fleeting image emerges from light, silver, iodine and mercury on a piece of metal (then later glass and paper). Life moves ever faster and photography is a way to capture it. That’s why taking pictures goes hand in hand with mobility and travel. And it is why photography is so important to those that permanently dislocate: immigrants. As immigrants from all over the world poured into America after World War II, taking pictures became a primary way that people mediated their expectations of a place relative to its reality. The land of the gold rush, of opportunity, Hollywood, Times Square, Grand Canyon, cowboys – how did blustery descriptions of the promised land match up to those risking it all to come here?

Sontag again: “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism.”

For my purposes, I would substitute “tourism” with “immigration.” For my dad I’m sure that part of the appeal of taking pictures in America was that it proved the value of leisure time that hard work bought. And each picture he took of our lives in America validated the decision he and my mom made to escape China during its cultural revolution. Each picture from a developed roll coming back from the Walgreen’s photo counter was a trophy of this.


Notes on Photography

Cameras on smart phones are pulled out and scenes snapped as breathlessly as pointing a finger at something and saying, “Check that out!” Photography is a global transmittable form, unlimited in its immateriality and able to effortlessly bear the burden of truth.

My parent’s photos from China, Hong Kong and our early days in America are kept in photo albums which are stored underneath a counter in their kitchen. My dad was and is obsessed with picture-taking. He planned annual trips to the photo studio at the mall to get a proper family portrait behind a dull, splotchy blue background. My sister and I, dressed awkwardly in formal clothes, smiled uncomfortably when the bored teenage valley girl demanded. We didn’t get it then, but this ritual, these photographs were a big deal to my dad, and to a lesser extent, my mom. We seemed to go on holiday trips to Yosemite, Disneyland, or the Russian River just for the photo op. In middle school, when my basketball team had our team picture taken and I was the only kid who wore a t-shirt underneath my jersey, he scolded me for looking different than anyone else.

The function of photography today is a dense subject and one I’ll return to frequently, but I believe Chinese families like mine, newly settled in America, use photography to sort out their own figure/ground relationship in a new land. It’s a way to locate themselves in a foreign landscape and to picture themselves as ‘normal’ within it.

A few years ago, as part of her residency at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, artist Xaviera Simmons set up a make-shift photo studio on Jamaica Avenue, shooting free portraits of passersby in front of patterned fabric backgrounds. Etched on the faces of most of the people she photographed was the duality of New York: hard-headed resilience and open-hearted vulnerability. Many of her photographs are just straight-up beautiful in their frankness and it’s heartening to know that they’ll only look better as they get farther and farther away from their moment.