June 1 2011 12:00 AM

Photographer Suellen Hozman’s ’Flesh Tones’ challenges the power of first impressions


It’s hard to find a succinct yet sensitive way to describe
“Flesh Tones,” Lansing photographer Suellen Hozman’s black and white
portrait show of unforgettable faces and bodies, opening Sunday at
Absolute Gallery.

On the surface, the show is a naked riot of epidermal
diversity, from freckles run amok to cascades of wrinkles to variations
of skin color and texture some people might find difficult to look at.

Difficult — let’s run with that. To see what Hozman is
getting at, turn “Flesh Tones” around. Imagine that the faces in the
photographs are peering through the frames at the show’s real subjects —
the gallery visitors.

That makes it easy. Look at “Flesh Tones” inside out, and
it’s obviously an exhibit of people with a serious, but correctable,
perception disorder.

Many of the people Hozman photographed have skin
conditions with ominous Latin names like nevus, ichthyosis or alopecia,
but when it comes down to it, they have only one real problem: the way
other people see them. 

Tales of depression, isolation, discrimination and rude
questions on short acquaintance fill the personal statements attached to
the portraits in “Flesh Tones.” the 67-year-old Hozman wants to flip
all of that over.

“These are people with skin decorations,” Hozman said. 

Ashlee Kirk, a 23-year-old Lansing Community College
student, is learning to live with vitiligo, a condition that results in
loss of brown pigment from parts of her skin. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s
very conspicuous and there is no cure.

“Being around large groups of people used to be a
challenge for me,” Kirk wrote in her statement. “Growing up, all I
thought people saw when they looked at me was my skin.”

Kirk said she was hesitant at first to do the photo shoot with Hozman, especially when she found out she would have to be nude.

“But I enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s good to get it out there.”

While shooting, Kirk felt that she and Hozman were pursuing different — but compatible — goals.

“For her, it was about educating people about the
different flesh decorations,” Kirk said. “For me, it was self-discovery,
to make myself comfortable with my own body. I wanted to grow and
accept myself a little more, and I did.”

Hozman said her goal isn’t to convince people that vitiligo is beautiful, but to “improve choice” for the viewer.

“Instead of people avoiding Ashlee, maybe they look her in the eyes and say, ‘How’s it going?’” Hozman said.

That acceptance, in turn, will improve choice for a person with a “skin decoration.”

“Celebrate” is a word that’s not often linked with
vitiligo. Mary Cleveland, director of the National Vitiligo Foundation,
said Hozman’s show is “quite unusual.” 

Cleveland will be on hand for Sunday’s opening, along with
representatives from several other groups associated with the
“decorations” represented in the show. 

Cleveland and her staff handle calls from all over the
world. Some people accept vitiligo from the start; others have a very
difficult time.

“They become reclusive, suicidal and everything in
between,” she said. “The mental component is large compared to other

Cleveland and her staff are adding psychiatrists and
psychologists to dermatologists in the group’s physician directory, but,
as Hozman is out to prove, the people who really need straightening out
are the ones who don’t have the condition.

“Part of the reason the psychological issues exist is the
way society views people with skin disorders,” Cleveland said. “The more
we can get people engaged in understanding what vitiligo is, the better
it is for those who are living with it.”

Cleveland sees “Flesh Tones” as an exhibit that ultimately
helps everyone. We’re very proud of her work, and want to be there to
celebrate with her.”

Hozman will reprise “Flesh Tones,” with new subjects, this
September at REO Town’s Art Alley. She wants to take the work on tour,
and already has a show booked for August 2012 in Fargo, N.D. As the
roster of eager participants grows, she hopes to publish a book
collecting photographs and stories.

The paradox at the heart of “Flesh Tones” is Hozman’s deft
use of photography, a medium based on appearances, to get past %uFB01rst

“My goal as a photographer was to capture what it felt like to be with Ashlee, not what she looks like,” Hozman said.  

The subjects are nude, Hozman explained, because the texture of clothes would compete with the subject of the show: flesh.

“It was important to many of these people to show more
than their face, because so few people have an understanding that their
flesh decoration is all over their body,” Hozman said.

She gestured at the photo of Kirk.

“This photograph shows how it can develop differently in
different parts of her body,” Hozman said. “There’s this brush stroke of
pink, right here on her cheek.”

Another “Flesh Tones” subject is a
Lansing police officer named Ryan, who declined to use his last name.
Ryan has alopecia universalis, which causes loss of all body hair.
Hozman said Ryan is constantly pestered by rude questions about whether
he has pubic hair. His “Flesh Tones” photo is a way of saying, “NO! Now
let’s move on.”

“It was clear he had to be naked, because if we didn’t
address the issue of pubic hair, the photo would not be successful,”
Hozman said.

Kirk said Hozman made it easy to relax.

“She handles everything professionally,” Kirk said. “She doesn’t make you do anything you’re not comfortable doing.”

To help put her subjects at ease, Hozman said she offered to take her clothes off during the session.

“I’m not going to ask them to do something I wouldn’t do,” she said. “All I need to wear is the camera.”

Nobody took her up on it.

“That made me feel like I was visual pollution or something,” she said.

’Flesh Tones’
Photography by Suellen Hozman
Reception Noon-5 p.m. Sunday, June 5, at Absolute Gallery, 307 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing; exhibit continues through June 30.
Regular gallery hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
(517) 482-8845