Speaking through Images: Asian American Photographers and Printmakers at the Library of Congress

The following is a guest post by Adam Silvia, Curator of Photography, and Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints in the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

In honor of this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May 1-31) the Prints & Photographs Division would like to share with you a selection of compelling photographs and graphic artworks by Asian American creators.

One such creator is An Rong Xu. Born in China and raised in New York City, Xu is traveling across the United States photographing fellow Asian Americans. His photos, like that showing the Crimson Kings marching band in New York’s Chinatown, capture beauty in the everyday, as the subjects pursue their own American dream.

Chinatown, New York City.

Chinatown, New York City. Color inkjet print by An Rong Xu, 2012. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72147

The image by Xu makes us think about a drypoint by Kakyoung Lee that depicts a steady flow of pedestrians moving through Grand Army Plaza in another part of New York City. Lee animated the images and added atmospheric noises. “My moving images are lyrically poetic first person stories,” says Lee. “Trying to locate my identity, I seek it in the different geographic and cultural milieus through which I have passed.”

Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, New York,

Untitled – Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, New York, 03.09. 37. Drypoint by Kakyoung Lee, 2009. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72320

While New York’s Chinatown and New York City as a whole occupy a prominent position in American visual culture, Xu’s photography in the American West challenges us to broaden our thinking about Asian Americans. One photo shows Ryan Takemiya, a Japanese American actor, wearing a cowboy hat and smoking a cigarette, like John Wayne. Xu photographed him looking out into the Arizona sunrise.

Ryan Takemiya, sunrise at the Grand Canyon.

Ryan Takemiya, sunrise at the Grand Canyon. Color inkjet print by An Rong Xu, 2014. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72146

Similarly, artist prints by Roger Shimomura and Chiura Obata speak to Asian American experiences in the American heartland and the American West. Using humor and satire, Shimomura comments on his hybrid heritage by presenting himself as a Kansas Samurai. “[My] move to Kansas… underscored my ethnic and cultural difference…” states Shimomura. “The images in Kansas Samurai are meant to metaphorically represent that sense of rejection that can be experienced by those who are not members of the majority culture.” The print by Obata was inspired by his visit to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevadas in 1927. Like Shimomura’s, Obata’s experience in America was not always pleasant. As a Japanese American during World War II, Obata and his family were incarcerated at Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.

Kansas Samurai.

Kansas Samurai. Color lithograph by Roger Shimomura, 2004. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72313

Evening Moon, Yosemite, California. Color woodcut by Chiura Obata, 1930. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72315

Further west on his journey, Xu photographed a portrait hanging inside a photography studio owned by Asian Americans in San Francisco, California.

Chinese American artist Hung Liu, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, often references historical pictures by Chinese photographers in her paintings and prints. In her lithograph, The Maiden, she adds layers of drips, washes and imagery to selectively veil and reveal, complicating notions of historical and documentary authenticity.

Jason Photo Studio, San Francisco. Color inkjet print by An Rong Xu, 2014. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72152

Unofficial Portraits: The Maiden. Color lithograph with collage by Hung Liu, 2001. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.07206

The photographs and the graphic artworks described above reflect the multidimensional and complex nature of Asian American culture. Xu again conveys this in a photo that shows a collage of inspirational and aspirational images (performers costumed as lions or dragons, a large boat, President Barack Obama) taped to the door window of a business owned by Asian Americans in Brooklyn.

8th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Color inkjet print by An Rong Xu, 2013. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.72149

Helen Oji, a California-born, New York artist of Japanese heritage, likewise encapsulates this message in her offset lithograph, Cultural Exchange. “The title… was inspired by a group of paintings that utilized images of diamonds and eyes (in many forms) representing multiculturalism,” explains Oji. “The diamond is a universal symbol of luminous being, light, brilliance, and life. Eyes are the stars, eyes of the night, knowledge, the intelligence of the spirit, then the process of seeing represents a spiritual act and symbolizes understanding.”

Cultural Exchange. Color offset lithograph by Helen Oji, 1996. Used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.39488

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One Comment

  1. Xander Harcourt
    May 14, 2021 at 7:33 am

    Very powerful imagery! To see the photographic definition of American identity expanded to include people other than what first comes to mind, like cowboys and marching bands, is exciting and troubling to me.

    It is exciting, because seeing an Asian cowboy is super cool. It is troubling that I had not considered that image in my minds eye before. I mean, why not?

    There is definitely work to do to expand and include all the nuances of American life to show that everyone truly is a part of it – there really should be no “other”. We need to tell better and bigger stories. No one should be surprised to see an Asian cowboy in America.

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