“Portraiture….can reveal things about both photographer and the sitter.” -- Susan Behrends Frank, Associate Curator for Research, Phillips Collection
Now that "selfie" is officially in the dictionary, it can be easy to forget that photography is still a relatively new medium, at least compared to drawing or sculpture. And as such, the relationship between artist and subject is still evolving. Shaping a Modern Identity--a new exhibit at DC's Phillips Collection with works by Chuck Close, Imogen Cunningham, Tina Barney, and others--offers the public a look at how that relationship plays itself out in 20th- and 21st-century photographic portraiture. Long known for blockbuster shows such as Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series and the show of "multiples" by Vincent Van Gogh currently on view, the Phillips Collection, which has previously received grant support from the Arts Endowment, also engages the community by providing a space for the general public to come into conversation with works owned by local collectors. The 16 works in Shaping a Modern Identity, which are on loan from the collection of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, ask a particular question: What is the relationship between the artist and the subject? As proposed in the accompanying wall text, each of the selected works (including an etching by Lucien Freud, the only non-photographic work in the show): "Is portraiture a reflection of the sitter's truth? Or that of the artist? Or a type of collaboration, something negotiated between them?" According to Susan Behrends Frank, the Phillips' associate curator for research, "I think that one thing that any visitor to the show will see is a visually compelling image in every one of these portraits. It really gives some sense of the psychology that we can find looking at individuals." We spoke with Frank about that shifting dynamic between artist and subject, as well as how that tension specifically plays out in two of the works included in the show.
On contemporary portraiture…
With the advent of photography, [there was] a much more dynamic relationship between the sitter and the artist because the final portrait is not solely in control of the artist. Now, it's really often negotiated space between the individual being photographed and the artist… [In this show] I think we're trying to make the visitor think about the active engagement between the sitter and the artist by talking about shaping a modern identity because it's really a lot about that negotiated space between them that is much more active. Photography gives the sitter a much stronger voice than if you're just dealing with painting or even caricature. There's always been this way of pushing the envelope in the 20th century about portraiture. But, this idea of identity and "who we are" and how we choose to project ourselves or not is something that, I think, photography allows so much more. I would say there's likeness, on the one hand, because we have a representation of the physical person, but there are also other aspects of psychology that can come into view depending on how the photographer and the sitter set that moment up for a photo shoot.
On portraiture in photography versus painting…
Someone like Cecily Brown--she's a painter--is navigating that space often using herself as the subject. [There's also Lucien] Freud, of course, who is famous for his very penetrating painted portraits of friends and family that he did. So, I think there are certainly visual artists who are not working in photography who are exploring the terrain of portraiture and identity and how we navigate that genre today. But, I think photography is a very unique way [of making portraits]. There is this conversation between the sitter and the artist that is more active--where the sitter can try to portray something for a painter, [but] it's really the painter's decision as to whether they follow through with that and make that choice. The camera can reveal things that, perhaps, the photographer wasn't interested in controlling 100 percent. So, there is this way to find a shared space.
On Chuck Close's portrait of Kate Moss (top)...
[Chuck Close] is the master of the person who focuses on the exterior without probing deeply into psychology, trying to create these visual images that are so pristine and compelling on the surface, but which don't really allow us to understand anything about the psychology of the individual. Here, with his photograph/portrait of Kate Moss--she's a supermodel, the epitome of glamour and beauty--and he has photographed her without makeup…. He's used a style of photography that captures in this pristine form every detail of her skin, her hair.
On how street photography has influenced fine art portraiture…
There is some engagement that you can find--the finding [of] the interest in anonymous individuals, I think, is part of that influence…Street photography does engage with people that are anonymous, not celebrity individuals. And we capture them in their own environment. I do think [the influence of street photography] has come into the environment in terms of who is portraying and how we look at them and, thus, look at ourselves.
On Tina Barney's The Orange Room...
[Tina Barney] was interested in photographing aristocrats in Europe, and she used her connections with friends and dealers to open doors. So, the series is individuals that she had just met…. This is a gentleman that's in a room of his home. She gives as the title of the photograph The Orange Room so it emphasizes the environment and not the individual. You look at him, and if you think about it as portraiture, you see his hands are up covering the bottom half of his face [and he] seems kind of contemplative. But, when you realize he doesn't really know who the photographer was--she's just somebody who had asked to come in and do a photo shoot-- you can see that he is wary of revealing too much about himself.
“With digital cameras, we all have the ability to participate in this idea that is portraiture.”
We all believe we have access to doing portraiture, and I think that that is something that is going to become a part of the way we think about portraiture as we move forward in the 21st century. That now, with digital cameras, we all have the ability to participate in this idea that is portraiture--taking pictures of ourselves or our friends. Manipulating them in the computer has become so commonplace for so many, and even for many photographers who are active today. (But, the photographers that we have on view here have not done that or manipulated any of their work. They are really examples of what was photographed and preserved and not altered.)
“I’d like to see more photographs that are more about the human side…”
I'd like to see more photographs that are more about the human side of who we are and what we are rather than just formal compositions that seem more surreal and artistic. But it's an interesting question and I think that there are some painters who are trying to explore this terrain. It'd be interesting to see where they can push it. It's always interesting, I think, for official portraiture when you see someone who has been commissioned to do a painting of a famous individual or group of individuals. They generally fall short except in likeness. There's something that needs to be rediscovered that portraiture is really not just the physical likeness, that there [are] some other aspects of our humanity and inner life that artists can try to capture either in photograph or in the fine arts.
“I think that it’s an interesting question for the viewer to ponder what portraiture really involves.”
I think that it's an interesting question for the viewer to ponder what portraiture really involves. That it's not a passive activity at all. That there is this dynamic relationship between artist and sitter. And… to think about the many varieties… of both photographs and images of famous people and also completely anonymous individuals. That there is this compelling, insightful, marvelous view that we can discover about the universality of what we share; the humanity that we share. Whether it's a young, teenage girl in Africa, or a young woman in the Midwest, or a homeless individual, there is this shared humanity that we can all find.