Myra Greene, edited excerpts from an interview with Tate Shaw that appears in the book My White Friends (2012, Kehrer Verlag):
In previous projects, I created a lot of self-portraits and objects that related directly to my black body. Over time I struggled with the concept of how blackness is commodified, and how an art object helps to promote that commodification. At the same time, I was having conversations with white people about how they digested this idea of commodification. In a late-night conversation with my friend DW, I asked, “Do you think about whiteness in these terms?” His response was that he didn’t really think about whiteness. I left that night wondering about how one could lack consciousness about one’s racial identity. I had never considered this was possible. But in the end, his position made absolute sense.
Something does not have to be exotic to be commodified. Whiteness is commodified all the time. As the dominant part of popular culture, it is fed back to us as the definition of “normal.” Everything else is organized around that normal. It dictates the types of characters we see on sitcoms, the people we see in commercials. Our societal problem around this is that we do not recognize that commodification of whiteness; it’s marketed as the everyday. My pictures are sometimes seen as banal or mundane because at first glance they appear to be that which one sees every day. But if you shift your view a bit, the images call into question a lot of bigger concerns about how we describe, and in turn, think about racial identity.
I am very conscious of how my racial identity plays in different environments and spaces. At some point in the process of making My White Friends, I had a conversation—some casual, some intense—about race with each person I photographed, in order to learn whether they were conscious of their own racial identity as they traveled through their world. In response to being asked to pose for racial identity portraits, some people found it amusing; for others, it caused great anxiety. The internal resolution of some of these issues is what the sitter brought to the picture—it may be captured in a gesture, or fabricated in the environment.
In a photograph, environments are crucial to help support tone and potentially add to the symbolic. From the beginning, I had Bruce Davidson’s project East 100th Street in the back of my mind. As a teenager interested in photography who was living in Harlem in the late 1980s, I was told to look at those pictures. The places themselves often seemed distraught and sullen, and took on a presence sometimes greater than the figures in the photographs. So I learned from these pictures that environment could set the tone. In all of the White Friends images I tried to shift and play with the scale of the figure in the environment as well as color and light to create subtle ways that the overall image speaks to whiteness. These people are not caught in an act by the camera; they are manicured into a space and provided an opportunity to respond to the idea of being imaged for their race.
The responses to this project vary, especially if I am in the room. If I am present, everyone is on their best politically-correct behavior. But in closed rooms, or when people don’t think I am listening, the responses are different. Some people are sensitive to the implications of the project—reflections on a history of America, its culture and its borders, that both includes and excludes people. Others find it so simple they think it is stupid; but simple questions can lead to complicated conversations and quandaries. My goal has never been to come up with definitive categories of whiteness, but instead to bring whiteness to the forefront so that we can have a shared conversation about what it is and perhaps what it means. I want conversations, not categories.
Exhibition Dates: Thursday, April 10–Saturday, September 13, 2014
Center for Documentary Studies, Porch and University Galleries
1317 W. Pettigrew St., Durham, North Carolina
“The idea gradually dawned on me that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.” —George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company
Exhibit curator Lisa McCarty, 2013–14 CDS exhibitions intern:
Between 1888 and 1975, the Eastman Kodak Company invented the first handheld camera, roll film, 35mm negative and slide films, the first line of color film for amateurs, and the first digital camera—essentially making photography as we’ve experienced it for the past hundred years possible. Kodak transformed the once costly and cumbersome pursuit of image making into an inexpensive and spontaneous affair , and in the process , made it possible for almost anyone to become a photographer.
Alongside their technical advances, Eastman Kodak broke new ground in commercial marketing. By pioneering the use of print advertisements featuring persuasive slogans and romanticized illustrations, Kodak convinced consumers that photographing their daily lives was both a joyful pastime and a familial duty, and they made it as easy as pressing a button.
Take a Kodak with you. Kodak as you go. Keep a Kodak story of the children. Make somebody happy with a Kodak. You can keep happiness with snapshots. Treasured moments deserve Kodak film. You press the button, we do the rest.
Kodak’s promotional pleas, along with their amateur-friendly cameras, ushered in an era of documentary compulsion that continues to thrive today.
An Everyday Affair surveys 101 years of advertisements in five thematic groupings to examine the ideology of simplicity and pleasure that Kodak sold to America with its products. However, while these innovative production and marketing strategies led to the worldwide ubiquity of photography, they also may have contributed to Kodak’s eventual bankruptcy in 2011. While Kodak shared in shaping our collective expectation that photography should be easy and enjoyable, their promotional strategies ultimately backfired when other companies began to simplify and glorify digital technology more effectively.
An Everyday Affair features reproductions of Eastman Kodak advertisements from the Wayne P. Ellis Collection of Kodakiana and the J. Walter Thompson Company Domestic Advertisements Collection, held in the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Library, as well as a selection of vintage Kodak cameras.