Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through December 31, 2012

In the 19th century, photographs were generally single portraits, making a record of one moment in time.  In the 20th century, photographers began to take multiple portraits of the same person or group of people - to record their subject over a span of time.  This show is composed of the works of 20 different artists who photographed the same subject multiple times.  It is primarily composed of works in the National Gallery's collection (which shows you just how large a collection it is).  The portraits are meant to demonstrate fluctuating states of being or to mark the passage of time.  The idea of identity is inherently mutable.  I think photography is viewed as more "truthful" than painting.  The idea is that this is how someone looked at a particular time (leaving Photoshop out of the discussion for the moment) - the serial portrait plays with that idea - by showing how people change over time, it asks the question, "What is the true picture of the person?"  "Who is this person, really?"

The first photographs featured are Harry Callahan's portraits of his wife, Eleanor.  I'd seen these before, in the big Callahan retrospective at the National Gallery not long ago.  I think this is the first time I'd seen something again, so I felt quite sophisticated, being able to think, "Oh yes, I remember that photo."  Callahan was not the only artist to take pictures of his wife; we were treated to a whole slew of them, including Emmet Gowin, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand.  I especially liked Gowin's "Edith, Danville, Virginia" which featured his wife with a shadow of leaves across her face and "Edith & Moth Flight" which was taken at night with only the available light and a long exposure - the moths seem to leave luminous traces around her face.  It turns out I'm not much more interested in pictures of Georgia O'Keefe than I am in her art, so I didn't give those more than a cursory glance.

Far more interesting was "The Brown Sisters," by Nicholas Nixon.  These are photos of the artist's wife and her three sisters, taken each year from 1975 through 2011.  It's tempting to read into these photographs great meaning about how the sisters felt about each other in any given year, but I'm not sure that's completely valid.  Sometimes, you just pose for the camera, and whether you're standing at a slight remove means nothing more than that you're afraid you're coming down withe a cold, and don't want to pass it along to everyone else.  Perhaps there's some validity that comes with tracing the relationships over time?  I read a review of this show not long ago in the Post, and the reviewer came away with the idea that this reminds us of death.  The sisters are (obviously) aging in the photographs; eventually, there will only be three sisters - eventually, they will all be gone.  My thoughts were not so morbid.  I was impressed that the four women and the photographer came together every year for 36 years - good for them.  I can't but admire their perseverance.  Yes, eventually, they'll all be gone, but so will we all.  Dwell all you like on the inevitable; I prefer to concentrate on the work they've done, rather than the fact that they won't be able to do it forever.

An intriguing work is Ilse Bing's "Self Portrait" from 1988.  It includes a shattered mirror, in which you can see yourself.  What's the meaning of this, I wondered?  Am I supposed to see myself in her?  Is it meant to be a universal portrait?  I'm not sure I came away with any answers, but if art is supposed to make you think, mission accomplished.  Next up is Ann Hamilton's body object series.  I could not help but be reminded of the web site someone put up with pictures of random objects on a rabbit's head.  I seem to remember a stack of pancakes were among the things that the long-suffering pet bunny had to endure.

Nikki S. Lee's self portraits really stuck with me - another example of the thought-provoking.  She transforms herself into a member of a particular group (skateboarders, yuppies, lesbians, Hispanics, hip hop enthusiasts) and then documents her interactions with actual members of the group.  It made me wonder how she managed this, and if she ever let on to her companions that she really wasn't part of their group.  I can see that this is an interesting experiment, but I wonder about the human cost of the deception.  I wanted to know the full story, rather than just see the photos.

Gillian Wearing takes photographs of herself disguised as other people.  Perhaps the best known and most striking is "Me as Mapplethorpe."  The only way to tell that this isn't a portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe is the small gap between the mask and her face that you can see just below her eyes.  It's a "copy" of Mapplethorpe's final self-portrait, done in 1998.  I was reminded of the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago; there was a great photo of Mapplethorpe included - when he was young and well.

Finally, Tomoko Sawada's "ID-400" reminded me of the Asian-American portrait exhibit that I just saw at the Portrait Gallery.  Sawada created 400 different personas, then photographed herself in a photo booth.  Without reading the notes next to the picture, I would not have realized it's the same person.  An amazing amount of work to pull off - again, it's the dedication that stands out for me.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  It's a big show, so allow plenty of time.  There's lots of different things here, so a little something for everyone.

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