When you look at a photograph by Wing Young Huie, especially one made during his nine-month North American road trip in 2001, you must be aware of both the man operating the camera when the exposure was made and the person viewing the photograph—you—in the present moment. Huie photographs to comment on experience and creates images that acknowledge and affirm numerous biases.
Evident throughout his work is the artist’s own experience as a self-perceived outsider during his Duluth, Minnesota, childhood. As the only child in his family not born in China, and one whose parents owned an enduring landmark restaurant, Huie knew he was extraordinary in the context of that rugged port city. Very few people looked like him; very few families were as “foreign” as the Huies. Growing up under these conditions sensitized him to the experience of the outsider, though Huie was also aware that he was officially, by birthright and by cultural immersion, as American as any of his classmates. His “ethnocentric filter,” the term Huie uses to explain his subjective take on the world, was as white as Paul Bunyan’s.
Huie’s early training as a journalist gave him a base for understanding the importance of conveying stories and, especially, personal narratives. From his earliest public exhibitions and their attendant publications to his most recent project (University Avenue, for which he photographed individuals holding chalkboards on which they had written a few words about their aspirations), he has used text to enhance and clarify the lives he records.
In 1981 Huie participated in a summer workshop led by the well-known American photographic artist Garry Winogrand (1928–1984), held by Film in the Cities/Lightworks in Saint Paul. That experience charged him with awareness of the photographic image itself, and the balancing act in which form and content contribute equally to the photograph’s meaning. Winogrand helped Huie connect the outsider narrative—the journalist’s self-effacing, allegedly objective stance—with a more personally driven notion of the photograph as a symbolic container of intention.
In 2001 Huie set out on an extended driving trip with his wife, Tara, following the example of another great American road trip photographer, Robert Frank (himself an outsider, having grown up in Switzerland), some 50 years earlier. The couple drove west out of Minnesota and ultimately visited thirty-nine states, including Hawaii, to observe and record the panoply of American ethnic diversity. Throughout, Huie observed Frank’s principle that “it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph,” interpreting it to mean that whenever he felt himself, his history, or his ethno-genetic makeup coming to the fore a photograph should be made. Huie’s family history was not his only bias; his views were also colored by being a man entering middle age, a tourist suffering culture shock, and half of a newly married couple encountering the pleasures and befuddlements of modern America. Most often, though, the photographic reaction Frank described was triggered by encounters with Chinese American culture. The photographs published in Looking for Asian America: An Ethnocentric Tour by Wing Young Huie encapsulate the range of Huie’s self-encounters. The Minnesota Museum of American Art debuted the full exhibition sequence of these works three years earlier in the one-person show Nine Months in America: An Ethnocentric Tour.
Death Valley, Nevada, the photograph of a young, Asian-looking girl on the edge of what seems like the end of a trail, has several subtexts. First of these is the issue of Japanese and Chinese “coolie” labor building the railroads, aiding and abetting the cause of American expansionism and making the frontier safe for capitalism. Second is the enduring tradition of poses in front of grand landscapes and of facial expressions worn during such moments. And third is the sanitizing of the scenic: the rocks the girl poses on are fabricated chunks assembled at the edge of a roadside pullout, a “scenic overlook” that may even have directions for pointing one’s camera or an explanatory panel to rationalize and objectify the daunting expanse of sere hills rolling off behind the child. Huie’s explanation, in the form of this photograph, offers far more questions than answers. Viewers must locate themselves in this terrain; the ethnocentric filter that Huie uses to make his photographs is also one each viewer must acknowledge in his or her own sightlines.
Essay by George Slade, Independent Curator