"Young African-American men are an enigma to almost everyone," Meg Hanson Scales writes in a text that accompanies photographs taken by her husband, Jeffrey. "Almost everyone wants them to stop being the way they are."
Jeffrey Scales has photographed some of these young men, these "brothers" who so baffle their elders. A group of tough-looking Crips in Compton posing on a street corner for Scales' camera spread their thumbs apart from their forefingers in a symbolic, albeit mysterious, gesture. Five young black men on 125th Street in Harlem look fresh-faced and friendly. They keep their hands balled up or out of sight. Another group of black men, members of a fraternity at Memphis State University, wear ties and letter sweaters and look like sober young achievers. They make a different private gesture, touching their index fingers to their thumbs.
What does it all mean? Scales doesn't offer specific answers. He works like an anthropologist, classifying the characteristics of groups without making value judgments about them. He is simply asking us to pay attention, to look more closely at a segment of the population we may write off as universally alien, troubled and dangerous--and to perceive how much our impressions of them are conditioned by cultural cues and expectations.
Similar approaches underlie most of the work in "Convergence: 8 Photographers," black-and-white images by little-known contemporary African-American photographers on view through Feb. 4 at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery.
Elizabeth Sunday photographs individual men and women in Africa with a technique that elongates torsos and distorts background scenery into mysterious swirls and eddies. In "The Offering"--part of a series Sunday made of the Kungsan people of Botswana, South Africa--a ghostly will-o'-the-wisp seems to run through the cupped hands of a tall, gaunt woman adorned with beaded jewelry. Behind her, the landscape seems to have turned to liquid, running off the edge of the world.
Wendel A. White's straightforward pairings of texts and images tersely relate the life stories--birth, marriage, children, death, neglect--of five black men whose tombstones in a Port Republic, N.J., cemetery are the only traces of a small black community that lasted from 1850 to about 1916 and established its own African Methodist Church.
The photographs are of worn, isolated gravestones, each decorated with a small American flag because the men all fought in the 25th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. White's deceptively simple approach involves poking through the inner pockets of history for information on circumstances that have eluded mainstream chroniclers.
Clarissa Sligh combines photographs from her family's album with texts dealing in a straightforward way with the oppressiveness of public opinion and social values. Some of these homey images (kids on the front steps, a dresser in the bedroom) are reproduced on a zig-zagging paper-doll-like cutout of houses in "What's Happening With Momma?" Printed on the front steps of each house (made of accordion-folded paper) is a story about a child troubled by something painful and mysterious happening to her mother that no one will explain to her--which turns out to be the birth of a sibling.
In "Work Yourself to Death," Sligh combines two photographs side-by-side--workmen shoveling and men in suits standing in a graveyard--with the written statement, "To be 'a man' you are required to be willing to work yourself to death if necessary to support your family."
Todd Gray's pair of blurry, oversize photographs, "Sender/Receiver," monumentalize a bank of microphones and a TV set, icons of contemporary culture that collect and distribute messages from powerful, controlling entities that homogenize and deny individual differences.
"Another Country, Untitled" is the title Christian Walker gives to his juxtapositions of historical photographs that isolate moments of racial tension or implied bigotry. One pair consists of anxious-looking South Africans standing on the roofs of buildings above a huge crowd that is nearly blotted out by Walker's charcoal markings; and a young black man standing next to a scaffolding, possibly awaiting his death by hanging.
Also in the exhibit are Coreen Simpson's soulful-looking portraits of members of New York street culture--stylized for mass consumption in a way not dissimilar to a Gap ad--and Albert Chong's blankly stylized tableaux, unconvincing attempts at conveying personal anguish via shrines made of Jamaican skulls and masks, objects of domestic furniture and photographs of the artist's dead father.
Organized for the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University by Deborah Willis, curator of photographs and prints at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, this exhibit offers a rare look at the work of young black artists. It makes you wonder what other clear, firm, individual voices out there aren't being heard.
What: "Convergence: 8 Photographers."
When: Noon. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday; through Feb. 4.
Where: UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery.
Whereabouts: Take the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway to Campus Drive and turn right onto Bridge Road (parking adjacent). Gallery is in Fine Arts Village.
Wherewithal: Admission is free.
Where to call: (714) 856-6610.