“These photographs are actually racist.”
I was shocked, to put it mildly, to hear my friend deliver this verdict of the Dana Lixenberg show at Huis Marseille. How could she say this of a body of work universally applauded for offering a respectful alternative to the stereotypical depictions of African-Americans? “They all look aggressive and arrogant, even the babies, and there’s hatred of white people in their eyes,” she retorted. “Lixenberg made them pose that way, so she’s responsible for encouraging an adverse reaction in the mostly white audience looking at these pictures.”
For my friend, perception and intention were very much out of sync. As Lixenberg has often repeated in interviews, she went to Watts in order to create “the other picture,” an antidote, as it were, to the stereotypes spread by the media. The first time she visited the Los Angeles neighborhood the situation was still very tense. It was 1992. Only a few months before, the acquittal of police officers who had beat taxi driver Rodney King, breaking his wrist and facial bone, had sparked widespread resistance—rioting, arson, and looting. South Central had effectively turned into a warzone. When the National Guard had restored the peace 53 people were dead, more than 2,000 were injured. News channels had spread images of Watts across the globe, portraying it as a hotbed of crime and violence. Understandably, the locals had had their fill of the media and weren’t exactly welcoming when a white Dutch woman suddenly showed up with her camera.
Dana Lixenberg, Tony, 1993, from Imperial Courts 1993–2015 © Dana Lixenberg
Lixenberg persisted. She was introduced to the community by Tony Bogard, a 12-year-old Crips gang leader to whom she’d given a ride. It was only when the photographer started setting up her tripod and large 4x5 inch format camera that some of the distrust started to ebb away. She obviously wasn’t there to take some quick, sensational snaps, jump into her car and rush off never to return. Her sincerity functioned as a passport to a part of the city most Caucasian Angelenos had never set foot in. The resulting series of photos, which were published in Vibe magazine in the fall of 1993, heralded her international breakthrough.
In Imperial Courts, named after the housing estate where she made her photographs, Lixenberg does the opposite of what the news media had done. Instead of zooming in on broken bottles and barred windows, gang graffiti and guns, she filters out anything that can be perceived as “ghettoish” to free the subject from the confines of stereotype. The portraits she shoots are very much about the people; houses and streets are neutral backgrounds at most. The large black and white prints look stripped and stark. It’s almost like studio photography.
Dana Lixenberg, Wilteysha, 1993, from Imperial Courts 1993–2015 © Dana Lixenberg
Later in her career Lixenberg applies the same working method to portraits of celebrities. Stars become people: Prince without the oozing sex appeal looks like an insecure boy; Tupac Shakur without the bravado is just a guy with a bandana; Sean Penn looks somber and almost on the brink of crying. No glamor here, no posing. There’s a radical kind of neutrality in these images. What makes these pictures so incredibly strong is because we all know the image and stories attached to these people, fed to us by their publicists, TV-shows, and magazines. Lixenberg presents them dressed down, as it were. Still, you can’t look at a picture of Robert Duvall or John McEnroe—however devoid of props or characteristic poses—without activating some kind of memory of their public persona. Lixenberg’s celebrity portraits thus become about the gap between the well-known image and her apparently neutral representation. A narrative unfolds there.
This is not the case for Dusty, Spider, Trouble, J50, China, or any of those other Imperial Courts residents Lixenberg photographed. Their image in the media is collective and generic, based on racist stereotypes. But in Imperial Courts information about who they truly are is scarce. The show at Huis Marseille comes with a lot of text about Watts, the gang wars between Bloods and Crips, and the general hardship of living in the projects, but the wall text in every hall reveals very little about the individuals portrayed. We’re presented with minimal biographical data, mostly the sensational markers of poverty and oppression: people get killed or incarcerated, become grandparents at 32, struggle to finish high school—the collective identity of the underprivileged.
Dana Lixenberg, Toussaint, 1993, from Imperial Courts 1993–2015 © Dana Lixenberg
Dana Lixenberg, J 50, pregnant with Kadejah, 2008, from Imperial Courts 1993–2015 © Dana Lixenberg
Lixenberg kept returning to Watts over the years, maintaining relationships with a number of the long-standing residents, and in 2008 and 2013 she shot another series of photos. In these some of the original protagonists return, grown up and in a different phase of their lives. The photographer abandoned her original focus and started making group portraits as well as documenting the environment. According to the accompanying text she wanted to include more of a feeling for the community and its dynamics. An abandoned barbeque in front of a house hints at outdoor life, a young man setting up a barbershop in the garden does too. But there is very little action or interaction. Nobody speaks or laughs. Most subjects just look into the camera as if they’re statues or models. A cocky boy with a cigarette and a shower cap, a pregnant girl, a dreamy-looking adolescent. They’re not stereotypes but they’re not real flesh and blood either.
Dana Lixenberg, Tish's Baby Shower, 2008, from Imperial Courts 1993–2015 © Dana Lixenberg
It’s only in the documentaries shown on Huis Marseille’s top floor and in the basement that we actually get to meet the people of Imperial Courts. In these moving images they literally come alive, leafing through the pictures Lixenberg brought back for them and commenting on who’s left the neighborhood or who has had a child. You see them react to each other, using certain words and trying out others in front of the camera. In the large video triptych from 2015, the camera allows us to get an idea of the neighborhood’s physical layout, how it’s locked in by highways and isolated from the rest of the city. Going back to the photographs after having seen these dynamic vignettes, Lixenberg’s photographic work seems to be falling short in some difficult to define way.
Yes, she has succeeded in erasing a certain stereotype but it’s doubtful whether the image she has supplanted it with is strong enough to withstand racist interpretations. Whether you see pride or arrogance, strength or menace, resilience or smoldering hatred very much depends on your point of view—and ultimately your race. Without being offered more than plain facts and still images, it’s impossible for even the most empathetic white audience to imagine what life in Watts was and is like or how it affects one’s outlook on life. But this is not a shortcoming unique to Lixenberg’s work: it probably applies to all photography. Interpretation completes the picture, and that part is out of the artist’s hands.
(Image at top: Dana Lixenberg, Dee Dee with her son Emir, 2013, from Imperial Courts 1993–2015 © Dana Lixenberg)