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How Photographers Used the Serial Portrait to Reveal Themselves, and America

How Photographers Used the Serial Portrait to Reveal Themselves, and America

As kids, my siblings and I would flip through old family albums and marvel over old pictures of family members in their youth. More than just thicker hair and thinner waistlines changed with time. You could really see an evolution of self over time—more confident, more resigned, more resilient—depending on the individual. In The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years, which runs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, through December 31, 2012, artists working in that same medium of photography show not only how they and their loved ones change over time, but also how America and its people have changed over time. The Serial Portrait serves as a family album of unfamiliar and familiar faces, but all related to us as Americans.

Bringing together only 20 select artists represented by over 150 images, The Serial Portrait makes big statements with small gestures that still manage to cover a century’s worth of close examination. Arranged both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition begins with the founding fathers of American photography—Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. The familiar photos of painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s calm face, lithe torso, and expressive hands by Stieglitz take on another dimension in this exhibit as an artistic approach rather than purely as a lover’s obsession. Both Strand and Stieglitz captured the likeness of Strand’s wife Rebecca in the early 1920s, thus offering a double serial study from different positions of intimacy.

Just as most painters use loved ones for models both for convenience and for depth of personal meaning, these photographers freely use family and friends to explore not just who that lover is, but also to explore the capacity of photography itself to express humanity in all its nuance. A century after Stieglitz studied O’Keeffe, Emmet Gowin used his wife Edith as the subject of both personal and professional exploration. In one photo, the shadow of a twig falls across Edith’s face as gently as a lover’s finger. In Edith, Danville, Virginia (from 1971), Gowin pictures his wife standing on a porch behind a screen door, simultaneously showing and hiding her. In one of the most fascinating images from the show, 2002’s Edith and Moth Flight (detail shown above), as stated in the online digital brochure, “combines Gowin’s enchantment with natural beauty and his interest in the nuances of his wife’s gestures and moods.” Shooting at night with a pulsing UV light behind his wife’s head, Gowin froze in light the flight paths of moths circling Edith’s blurred face, thus “transforming her into a ghostly and even otherworldly presence, visible yet just out of our reach.” Such poignant moments fill the exhibition.

When artists use themselves as the model, self-examination through photography extends the limits of the medium. Ilse Bing’s 1931 Self-Portrait with Leica shows the “Queen of the Leica” photographing herself in a mirror, visually depicting the mirroring action of photography itself. Pictures by Francesca Woodman, who almost exclusively made self-portraits in her too-short career, act almost like Rembrandt’s self-portrait series but in compact form chronologically. Gillian Wearing reimagines the self-portrait by assuming the identities of other famous photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus. Ann Hamilton’s body object series juxtaposes her body with other objects put into unusual contexts, such as body object series #13, toothpick suit/chair, in which Hamilton wears a suit covered in sharp toothpicks with a chair painfully hanging from her back. Whereas others make self-portraits revealing the body, Hamilton makes self-portraits questioning the body as just another object in a world of objects.

In addition to turning the photo on family and self, some of these serial portraitists turn to depicting America itself. In the late 1960s, Lee Friedlander took pictures of the American social landscape stretching from New York City and Westport, Connecticut, to Colorado and Aloha, Washington. Nicholas Nixon took pictures of The Brown Sisters from 1975 through 2010, capturing both an aging group of siblings as well as changing styles over nearly four decades. Snapshots by unknown American amateur photographers from the Robert E. Jackson Collection offer isolated glimpses into the collage of 1920s and 1930s America. But maybe the most fascinating glimpses of America come from the eye of Milton Rogovin, whose Lower West Side Series shot in Buffalo and Working People Series shot in Appalachia pictured those normally not seen in the American tableau. Rogovin’s subjects so rarely found a voice in society that they suspected he worked for the FBI in some way rather than simply wanted to tell their story.

But where some artists photograph themselves and other artists photograph the country and the people that compose it, Nikki S. Lee does both in a combination that might be best described as Cindy Sherman meets Zelig. Born in South Korea but based in New York City, Lee “transforms” herself into a member of whatever group she photographs: Hispanics, punk rockers, yuppies, strippers, lesbians, and even your typical tourist. Along with the photographs, Lee documents her transformation, which ranges from mimicking clothes and makeup to going so far as to learning exotic dancing, dieting, tanning, and even prosthetics. As a final step, Lee asks either a member of the target group or a passerby to snap the photo of her in situ, removing herself even more from the photographic process while emphasizing the transformative aspect of her art. Sometimes it’s hard to pick Lee out from the crowd (she’s that good a chameleon), but you learn to discover her after seeing the series of photos together. Lee thus becomes an everywoman showing every woman of every strata of American society.

The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years collects and demonstrates the power of photography to do many of the things that painting can do (a claim photography’s been trying to elude almost since its creation) as well as many of the things that painting cannot. Photography documents not just the person before the camera, but also the person behind it. There may only be 20 artists featured in The Serial Portrait, but this exhibition speaks for all photographers who tap into this dual documentary power and give us images that reflect back on us who we are and who we can be—a truth sometimes as fleeting and fragile in its beauty as the flight of a moth.

[Image:Emmet Gowin. Edith and Moth Flight (detail), 2002. Inkjet print. 19 x 19 cm (7 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Charina Endowment Fund. © Emmet and Edith Gowin. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.]

[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, for the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years, which runs through December 31, 2012.]


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