Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self

Exhibition | 2003


     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.

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.