Hood shows experiments in modern portrait photos

by Alex Rich | 10/16/00 5:00am

Imagine for a moment that you were a modern day portrait-photographer. How would you create a portrait of yourself? What would your portrait of someone else look like? Can a photographic portrait really be anything other than a typical snapshot?

The answer to the last question is an emphatic yes. In fact, the Hood Museum of Art's new exhibition, "Surface and Depth: Trends in Contemporary Portrait Photography," explores the portraiture of eight artist-photographers, who have proven that photography is anything but limited in its scope.

Dawoud Bey, John Coplans, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Nicholas Nixon, Gary Schneider, Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems demonstrate the diversity of approaches in contemporary portrait photography and the breadth of messages their works can convey.

Complementing the Hood's other fall portraiture exhibit, which features prints from the Renaissance and Reformation periods, the exhibition includes works created primarily over the past 20 years. The collection of portraits displays a wide range of style.

Take the work of Sherman. At first glance, her 1988-90 series of "History Portraits" seems very conservative. The series' title even anticipates orthodoxy. But Sherman is not known for her conformity; rather, her work usually pushes the artistic envelope.

"She is playing with portrait conventions. These have the appearance of being historic. But if you look closer, you can see that they have been manipulated," Research Curator Diane Miliotes said.

Using herself as a model in both "Untitled #212" and "Untitled #215," Sherman concocts the appearance of tradition in these portraits, utilizing iconography, poses and costuming that seem reminiscent of the portraiture of previous centuries. Sherman is not trying to recreate the ambience of old world portraiture, though; instead she is pointing out how artificial these portraits can be.

For instance, in "Untitled #212," Sherman appears in a classic profile pose with an expressionless face and hands clasped in front of her. But a careful examination of Sherman in the guise of this reserved sitter reveals a prosthetic nose, a wig and scraps of cloth making up her dress.

"Sherman sees portraiture as a genre that usually shows the ideal, but rarely shows the masking that creates that ideal," Miliotes said.

Here, Sherman is commenting on the age-old practice of idealization in portraiture. In her history portraits, she makes no effort to obscure their faux nature but rather tries to exaggerate it.

In contrast to Sherman's personally staged and rather subtle mimicry of historic portraiture, Weems appropriates images from other sources as the foundation for her more overt commentary. In her series entitled "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," Weems uses anthropological images, slave portraits and family commissions to explore the history of African-Americans in portrait photography.

The exhibition displays half of this large series, which mixes text with images. Each portrait is tinted red and the glass covering each is etched with original text.

"The textual narrative plays off the visual narrative. Weems tells a poignant story of African-American representation in photography," Miliotes said.

As a writer and poet, Weems inserts her own text as a means of commenting on these inescapable images of the past and their impact on African-American representation for the future.

The first set of photographs integrates anthropological photographs (apparently used during the mid-Nineteenth Century as "scientific images") with the following text: "YOU BECAME A SCIENTIFIC PROFILE," "A NEGROID TYPE," "AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL DEBATE" "AND A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT." Weems tries to figure out how African-Americans can represent themselves today when the hurtful images of the past still lurk in their memories.

In his portraits, Bey tries to allow his subjects to become part of the portrait process. Having started out as a documentary and street photographer, Bey decided he did not want to have the typical portraitist-subject rapport.

"He began to feel that the relationship between the artist and the sitter was unequal, almost parasitic. He wanted his subjects to have an active participation in their own portrayal," Miliotes said.

This led Bey to start producing studio portraits using a 235-pound Polaroid camera. This camera allowed Bey to create 20-by-24-inch instant prints of his subjects and have them help him select the best images at each session.

The enhanced intimacy between the artist and his subjects is reflected in the works' titles, including "Hillary and Taro" and "Mimi," the first names of the sitters. Bey adds a new dimension to portrait photography in these works -- unlike more traditional photographs, Bey overlaps images of his subjects in slightly different poses, which fosters the sense of a passage of time.

Nixon's series, "The Brown Sisters," presents an alternative method of countering portraiture's tendency to focus on the moment frozen in time. Nixon has taken the idea of the progression of time to the extreme in this ongoing work, in which he has photographed his wife and her three sisters annually for the past 25 years.

Nixon uses a 19th century-style view camera, which allows him to retain an enormous amount of detail in his photographs. Nixon has catalogued the physical and emotional changes of these sisters in one representative photograph each year, changing some aspects of the sessions (e.g. the time of year, the setting, the occasion), while keeping other aspects constant (the order the sisters stand in).

In a similar vein, Mann's view-camera photographs, selected from two series entitled "Immediate Family" and "At 12, Portraits of Young Women," offer a glimpse into the relationship between the artist and her subjects, among them her own children, often in varying states of undress.

Some of the portraits of her children have raised questions about what Mann should be photographing. In any event, Mann's portraits undoubtedly reflect the close relationships she has with her subjects.

Schneider explores an entirely different realm of portraiture than that of his contemporaries. In the exhibition "Inspired by the Human Genome Project," Schneider enlisted the help of medical technicians and researchers to create a self-portrait unlike any other in history.

Schneider wanted to focus on the implications of technological advances on our individuality and responded with his series "Genetic Self-Portrait," featuring works such as "Hair," "Retina" and "X Chromosome."

"These are not just about the self and picturing the self. They are also about the technological implications on our lives and the journey of self-discovery," Miliotes said.

Goldin, too, challenges the conventions of portraiture in her photographs of individuals who are not usually the subjects of portraits.

"She focuses a lot of attention on people on the outside of urban culture in the Nineties. She is pushing the boundaries of acceptability," Miliotes said.

Looking at Goldin's photographs, a viewer feels as if he or she is a participant in the scene. Goldin has the ability to tear down the barrier between artist and subject and even coaxes the viewer into the portraits as well. Portraits like "Gilles and Gotscho at Home, Paris" also create a narrative -- this particular sequence depicts the relationship of two lovers, culminating in the death of Gilles to AIDS.

Finally, as the oldest artist-photographer in the exhibition, Coplans, at 80 years old, produces naturalistic photographs of his own body. Unclothed, Coplans does not try to idealize himself in any way. In fact, he emphasizes his own imperfections; his photographs feature both close-ups of particular body parts and wide-angles of his entire body.

Interestingly, Coplans never shows his own head, contrasting with the typical expectations of a self-portrait to include, at the very least, the subject's face.

"These are nominally self-portraits. They have a more universal resonance and appeal," Miliotes said.

So what makes a portrait a portrait? As the artists featured in "Surface and Depth" prove, there is no easy answer. The works on display in this exhibition demonstrate that photographs, under the guidance of gifted artists, have the ability to extend the genre of portrait photography far beyond the conventions of the past.

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