In 1994, the fine-art photographer Lyle Ashton Harris’s drag and whiteface work took him to New York’s Whitney Museum, and, later, a solo show about the relationship between black nationalism and the idea of "family" brought him wide acclaim. Given that Harris has chosen to negotiate his social identity as a gay black man through artistic expression, his art serves as an ideal site upon which to ex­plore the economy of multiplicity. Here I use Harris’s work as a way to discern how it is an individual who identifies with several subject positions generates a final product that remains faithful to the diver­sified existence of the artist. I begin with an exploration of Harris’s photography, first engaging a selected image descriptively, then en­tering a conceptual analysis of the work on what I am calling "auto­cartographical terms."

The most striking aspect of the image "Middletown" is the coter­minous nature of heavy blacks and stark, near-blinding whites, which acts to highlight Harris’s pensive presence, as well as to frame the image itself. At first glance this might be read as a simple silhou­ette whose vitality is determined by the spirit of juxtaposition. But the aesthetic explorer—like an experienced photographic printer— knows that there are stories in the darkened places, that there is more to the blackness in the folds, and that we cannot fully know what whiteness is (what the negative has to offer) until we seek it out. When we indulge "the white" and "the black," such binaries multi­ply, and a scenario develops: the roughened exteriors of surfaces ap­pear and narratives are told in grainy, brooding detail. But narratives need not be conclusive, and detail should not imply structure. When a blurred image is printed on photographic paper, the print retains detail and the grain remains focused: the image is specific but not re­strained. There is an implicit relationship, here, between structure, knowledge and experience. We look at an image and in "the look" have an experience with the image before we rush to fix that experi­ence into predisposed structures in order to "apprehend" or "under­stand" it.6 Therefore, in looking at Harris’s photograph, we soon cease to have an experience with "it" and begin to explore our rela­tionship to "him." It is this dissonance between experience (motility) and structure (stagnancy) that I explore briefly in this essay under the auspices of the term "autocartography."

Since the image "Middletown," and autocartography generally, is about transitions and displacement—the very stuff of introspection— "brooding" might be a good way to begin. The photograph is ephemeral, searching, and its strength lies in its ability to evoke a threshold sensibility. At center, we have the figure of a man standing at the threshold of a room he seems to be leaving, looking out into a space that he may be entering, and in the distance is a chair in which no one sits. Where is he going? Why has he left? For whom is he wait­ing? The rural gentility of front porches and empty rocking chairs evokes a sense of absence—and absence seduces presence. Is he still waiting for the one who might not return? Or can we imagine that he himself is going to rest, finally, after needing so long to sit, breathe, and be?

Thus, in the image "Middletown," we have a black man at the crossroads, resting in the liminal space between known and unknown worlds—the scenario is one of movement and becoming. With "Mid­dletown," in place of image-blur, we have the traveler, displacing his body into a space so stark and promising it seems forbidden to him. Here, in a very liminal moment, Harris relaxes into indeterminacy and allies himself with the netherworlds of otherness and potential­ity. We sense not denial but an acceptance of what is to come. The movement is one that is toward, not one that goes against; it does not say "elsewhere" as much as it says "over there."

This image is not simply about reflection; it represents a moment of choice. When we consider "choice" in terms of identity, we return again to the problem of multiplicity: who do I choose to identify with now, at this moment? Why? In Marlon Riggs’s film Tongues Untied, the protagonist is presented with a corollary situation of identification. There is a segment of the film wherein the character, Riggs himself, remembers growing up and becoming aware of his various "selves." In fact, he is principally made aware of these identities when others confront him and call him names. How they curse him out depends heavily—and tellingly—on who they are: the segment shows a white southern voice calling him "Nigger" and "motherfuckin’ coon," rap­idly followed by two black male voices, each calling him "punk" and "faggot." One of the most powerful moments of the film portrays Riggs’s memory of being several things at once.

At age eleven, Riggs recalled that he and his best friend spent weeks practicing all types of kissing—dry, wet, French—until his friends older brother saw them and called them a name, "homo!" "What’s a homo?" Riggs asked. We see the older brother’s mus – tached lips cursing "punk," "faggot," "freak." Following the expla­nation, Riggs proclaims, "I understood." From that point, he and his friend stopped kissing and his best friend became his worst enemy. At this point in the film, images of lips cursing are cut into Riggs’s narration of his memory: ("motherfuckin’ coon"). At age twelve he was bussed to a junior high school located on the outskirts of Au­gusta, Georgia ("motherfuckin’ coon"). Riggs recalls how a spray – painted sign on the outside of the school greeted him with the words, "Niggers, go home." Riggs explained that the Rednecks hated him ("motherfuckin’ coon") because he was one of only two blacks placed in an advanced class with the city’s brightest white students ("Niggers, go home"):

The blacks hated me ("Uncle Tom") because they assumed my class status made me uppity ("Uncle Tom"), assumed my silence a superi­ority ("Uncle Tom"). I was shy ("Motherfuckin’ Coon") ("Uncle Tom"); I was confused ("Motherfuckin’ Coon") ("Uncle Tom") ("Niggers, go home"); I was afraid and alone.

At this point viewers are struck by a montage of curses, each is­sued from different lips: a young boy’s lips say "punk;" a black man says "homo," "faggot," "freak"; and a southern accent curses, "moth – erfuckin’ coon," "Niggers, go home." Then Riggs reflects, "Cornered by identities I never wanted to claim, I ran fast, hard, deep inside my­self, where it was still silent, safe deception." Later in life, Riggs re­flects on these moments of identification with the sobriety of an older man confronting AIDS:

Now that I have sat up with death, held its hand, rocked it. . . now that I have mourned the passing of men, loves never had, acts un­acted. . . now that I have shed shades of "nigger,” "boy,” for pig­ments of "faggot,” "queer,” "gender bender,” "blur”; now that I am "fairy,” "freaky,” "free,” initiate me. Paint war on my cheeks, anoint me with cocoa oil and cum so I speak in tongues twisted so tight they untangle my mind.

Here Riggs takes salvation in a tightly twisted truth. Somehow, through embracing his contradictions, Riggs frees his mind; the choice Riggs makes is the choice of obscurity.

If we view Harris’s portrait with identity in mind, we can see it as a moment of conscious choice and identification as well. In the image Harris is forced to align himself with some space that is both familiar and alien. Harris’s visualization of the moment of choice operate sim­ilarly to Riggs’s in that they are both enigmatic: they show a man who has made a choice, but we have no idea what the parameters of that choice are. A decision is being made, an action is taken, but the act is not one of abandonment. It is not as if one space of identification is abandoned for another, it is simply a different valve for the same pressure. One does not cease being but is different. Like the tiger in space or the moment of sex, subjectivity becomes intersubjectivity, and "self” bleeds almost imperceptibly into "other.” Consider again "Middletown.”

In "Middletown,” Harris’s protagonist is illegible precisely be­cause we think we can read him: after all, he is not in drag, there is no makeup, and the lighting is nearly documentarian in its straightfor­wardness. The setting is rural if not typical: A room. A doorway. A man. The stillness fools us. Against his more conceptual photographs, the languid image of Harris poised in the doorway seeks out a differ­ent register and plays other tones to mock movement and time. Like a Dickens ghost, stepping aptly between the world that was and the world that will be, "Middletown” revels in the joy of becoming— treading the spaces between the darkened folds of time.