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American AlphabetsReview - American Alphabets
by Wendy Ewald
Scalo, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 19th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 38)

Wendy Ewald is a well-known and much-praised conceptual artist who works in photography.  She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992, and she has published several books of photography, some of them coauthored with others.  Much of her work is done in collaboration with children, and she has worked in many different countries and with people of varied cultures.  Her work is also distinctive because she often writes or draws over her photographs; in this alphabet series she adds letters of the alphabet and illustrative words.

There are four "alphabets" in the book, with each of them illustrating a different letter.  They are Arabic, African American, Spanish, and White Girls.  At the bottom of each page is the word illustrating the letter, a short definition of the word, and a sentence illustrating the use of the word.  Most of the photographs show young people in an image somehow related to the word, although a few just have everyday objects.  The Spanish Alphabet is in black and white, and the others are mostly in color.  The colors in the Arabic and African American Alphabets are bright and eye-catching, while those in the White Girls Alphabet are more muted. 

In the White Girls Alphabet, it is easy to see how the words chosen reflect the preoccupations of the girls.  In this series, N is for "Normal," and we see a girl standing in jeans, sneakers, and a white top, with "NORMAL" handwritten in large letters diagonally across the image.  At the bottom of the page are the sentences:

Often people prefer to think of themselves and be thought of as normal.  However, how does one know what is normal?  Something is only normal when it has conformed to its surroundings and does not stand out.  However, if moves to a different surrounding, the previously normal thing would become strange or different.  Nothing is ever truly normal. 

P is for PMS, and we see a box of Tampax and a plastic bottle of Advil against a purple background.  The quotation at the bottom says, "When I have PMS, I am crabby, bloated, major cramping (Advil please) and cry about anything the least bit emotional, or occasionally for no apparent reason."  Clearly, the girls with whom Ewald worked are articulate and thoughtful.  They are from Phillips Academy, Andover, in Massachusetts, which defines itself as an independent coeducational boarding high school. 

The Arabic Alphabet was created with students from IS 220, in Queens, New York.  The letters and words will be much less familiar to most American readers.  The words are more ordinary: the first pages include "bortogal" (an orange), "tuffahat" (an apple), "thaub" (bathrobe), "jar" (neighbor), and ""habl" (rope).  The sentences illustrating the words are simple too: "My father bought oranges," "I love big juicy apples," "I wear my bathrobe after the shower," and "My neighbors are nice."  Both more foreign and more elementary than the White Girls Alphabet, these images look more like pictures that might appear in an elementary classroom.  They introduce us to another culture, humanizing it in unfamiliar ways.  There's the obvious message that these Arabic children are like other American children, but we can take other ideas from these pictures too.  One thought these images provokes is that we are like small children, hardly knowing the first thing about this foreign demonized culture, and we could learn more about it by understanding the basic parts of the language.

There is inevitably a political angle to a series of images focusing on Arabic children from Queens, but the political dimension comes not just from the subject matter..  Ewald's pictures are very distinctive, largely because of the childlike theme and the inclusion of handwritten letters on the photographs.  Compared to most contemporary photography, these images are technically crude, and the lack of sophistication is an aesthetic challenge to other photographers, as if to say that photography should be accessible and democratic, rather than obscure and elitist. 

The African-American Alphabet came from a stay at the Central Intermediate Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio.  Here a few of the words used are mostly distinctively urban, associated with black culture -- such as "brother," "durag," "ill," and "nappy" -- while others are simple and neutral -- such as "eat," "football," "jersey," and "lemons."  Many of the sentences explaining the words use distinctive African American grammar: for example, "Without money you cannot have no car, no ice, no house, no bed and no food.", "Sister, it is quiet when my little brother ain't around.", and "I be listening to the radio everyday.  My mother Cristina Virola be using the radio all the time too."  There's mention of poverty, difficult lives, and white people trying to put black people down.  The children shown in the pictures don't show their faces much, and when they do, they generally look serious.  It's not so clear what this series is trying to achieve.  These photographs lack visual interest and the language is already familiar, so they lack a sense of educational value.  It's almost as if the aim of the series was to provide a portrait of the grim inarticulacy of these young people.  At the end of the series is Y for yoyo, with the sentence "I always play with yo-yos." A hand lies inert, palm up, on a red surface, with a stationary beaten-up yo-yo attached to the forefinger by the string.  Following this is Z for zigzag, with the sentence "The line is zigzag."  In the picture, in pink and light blue chalk, are some rather random lines drawn on the ground.  These images completely lack energy, humor or thought.  Ewald conveys lifelessness and banality with these photographs. 

The Spanish Alphabet is similarly elusive in its intention.  It too features a Y for yo-yo, with the sentence "I know what a yo-yo is."  The black and white photograph shows a wooden yo-yo hanging from a short piece of string, with the string held down by a child's hand.  Few of the images in this series have much that is visually interesting -- for example, they show a hand holding out a telephone, a set of keys on a piece of white cloth, a hand raised in greeting, and a hand holding an orange.  Most of the accompanying sentences are mundane.  This is not to blame the students at Bethesda Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina for the dull alphabet, but it leaves the viewer wondering what Ewald is trying to do.  These images do illustrate Spanish words, and a few elements of Spanish culture and language, but the lack of sophistication doesn't seem to have much of a point.  The series might be interesting as a collaboration, but it's not very interesting to look at. 

This raises the question why has Wendy Ewald won so many awards and received such praise.  The answer seems to lie in the multicultural and democratic nature of her working process.  However, it is hard to escape the suspicion that, especially with the younger children she worked with, she could have found far more interesting aspects of their lives for them to talk about, and they could have been more creative in making their photographs.  Aesthetically, the White Girls series stands out as being easily the most thoughtful and attractive in the book, and the Arabic Alphabet is also quite powerful.  The other two series fall flat.  Nevertheless, Ewald's enterprise is notable, and her work is worth exploring. 


© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.





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