SELF/PORTRAIT photo exhibition showcases student portraits

The exhibition, open until Feb. 27, acts as a response to the documentary "Faces Places."

by Kasey Rhee | 2/15/18 12:00am

Wander into the high-ceilinged quiet of Black Family Visual Arts Center this month and one will encounter SELF/PORTRAIT, an exhibition of photographs by students of Studio Art 29, “Photography I,” and other photography classes over the span of the past two years. Student Gallery Room 102 is washed grayscale, each of its walls displaying groups of three or four black and white film photographs. The common thread between the photos is portraiture — not every work has its artist as subject, but all concern a meditation on self. Curated by studio art professor Virginia Beahan and teaching assistant Josh Renaud ’17, the photographs come together as a cohesive response to the documentary “Faces Places,” a film screened at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on Jan. 12 and Jan. 19. “Faces Places” follows 89-year-old Agnès Varda, a creative force who spearheaded the French New Wave, and 33-year-old French photographer and muralist JR on their journey through the villages of France. JR and Varda interviewed and created portraits of locals; their resulting documentary is built on the humanity of these encounters and the friendship they build in their time with each other. 

The first photo in the gallery is a piece by Ian Marx ’19. It is one in a series of a daring venture into naked self-portraiture by Marx. A large, curling shadow looms behind his frame, and the photo is punctuated by his own face, his expression drawn into a serious outward gaze. The interplay between shadow and flesh catches the eye, but Marx noted that this interplay was a happy coincidence and the result of much experimentation. 

“At risk of making it seem less cool, that shadow was not planned,” he said. “That was the first time I’d ever done studio photography. Usually I do landscapes or street photography, and I’d never shot portraits of anyone, including myself. I’d never used studio lighting, so that photo was really a result of my own experimentation.” 

He explained that the photo was initially brought on by class discussions; a classmate whose portfolio concentrated on seeing “women as women,” independent of a male-centered view, spoke about the concept of the “male gaze.” This triggered Marx’s own self-reflection and this photo, which he said is a result of “looking inward.”

Turning to the right in the gallery and following the natural progression of one print to the next is a photo of a young black woman looking out onto a river by Margaret Jones ’19. The river is Mink Brook — a secondary aim of Jones’ was to use photography as a medium to communicate “her Dartmouth.” She explored the skiway, Mink Brook and Occom Pond as part of the rolls of film she shot that would eventually become her portfolio. The photograph shows the young woman’s back and nothing else. Her shoulders are square, steady. This is exactly what Jones was aiming to capture: confidence. 

“It’s my friend Adoley Swaniker [’19],” Jones said. “She’s one of my favorite people — she carries herself very confidently, and I think that that comes through in some of the photos she’s in.” 

Jones’ portfolio focused not only on women in nature but also on women being confident and comfortable in their own skins. She said her own life has directly influenced her work in that she is the oldest of her siblings, and throughout her childhood, her camp counselors each summer served as “strong female role models that [she] really clung to.” 

“I wanted to show how these women can be strong, wherever they are,” Jones said. 

Jones said that this message is aided by “the power in [Swaniker’s] pose. She just looks so stable, really resolute.”

Upon moving to the room’s exit, one will find oneself square in front of two consecutive pieces from Sia Peng ’20. The first is a shot covered almost completely by mirrors, with only a camera and a partial view of Peng’s face coming through. The second is a heavily blurred self-portrait, Peng’s hair falling across her face. Peng explained that her portfolio was based on a quote from Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” that she had chosen to correspond to her work: “Hide-and-Seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found.”

The second photograph in particular speaks to her work’s relationship with confusion. She was led to play with the effects of shutter speed and experimented with a lower shutter speed to create the blur in the final product. 

“It’s supposed to convey confusion about yourself, sort of,” she said. “I was confused in freshman year when I took these photos. I’m still confused now.”

There’s a spontaneity evident in Peng’s process that is perhaps a result of film photography itself, since the photographer cannot review its photographs instantly. Because of this, “Photography I” includes instruction in developing photos, giving the artist control over post-production with a personal darkroom. 

“When you’re taking [the photos], a lot of it is intuitive, and you discover the significance and get to make certain choices while looking back,” Peng said. “The darkroom is your Photoshop, and personally, the darkroom makes me feel much more intimate with a photo instead of capturing it the digital way.”

SELF/PORTRAIT is open in Gallery Room 102 of the Black Family Visual Arts Center until Feb. 27.

Jones is a former member of The Dartmouth Senior Staff.