Myra Greene: Some of Her Best Friends Are White

May 22, 2012 / by David Gonzalez / The New York Times, LENS

Myra Greene grew up in New York, where she was used to being around people of different races. But as she embarked on her photographic career, her work and travels took her to places where she was the only African-American.

And she knew it.

“I’m always thinking about race,” she said. “I recognize it when I’m the only black person in a room. My white friends will notice I’m the only black person, too. But they don’t notice a room full of white people.”

They might now.

“My White Friends” is a series of some 50 portraits of — you guessed it — Ms. Greene’s white friends. Shot in color, and posed to the point of performance in some cases, the images delve into questions of race and self-perception. She did them hoping to spur a conversation on these issues, which have been part of her work for a while now.

In fact, the project had its roots in “Character Recognition,” a series Ms. Greene had done shortly after Hurricane Katrina. She had been aghast at how some of New Orleans’s black residents were left to fend for themselves or worse and made a series of black-glass ambrotypes, taking glistening close-ups of her facial features.

“How do we look at black people and recognize their character?” said Ms. Greene, 36, who teaches photography at Columbia College in Chicago. “Do we recognize character just by looking at the shape of a nose or the color of skin?”

When she exhibited the work, she was struck by a comment a good friend made to her. He loved the images, but felt a little uneasy.

“He told me ‘It’s a weird thing as a white guy not knowing how to think about this stuff,’ ” she recalled him saying. “‘Am I fetishizing it?’”

“I asked him if he thought about whiteness, and he said no,” she said. “That’s when I decided to do a project on photography and whiteness.”

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