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Constructed Identities

A new exhibition explores photography's power to create a persona
August 9, 2016
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy with Advisors in His Office, Washington, DC

Barbara Tannenbaum Curator of Photography

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy with Advisors in His Office, Washington, DC 1961. Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004). Gelatin silver print; 25.5 x 16.9 cm. Gift of George Stephanopoulos 2012.324 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos


When Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed Robert F. Kennedy in 1961–62, he depicted a hardworking, thoughtful, and charismatic leader who was also a devoted, tender family man. The French photojournalist probably genuinely admired the young U.S. attorney general and his efforts to use the law to create a fairer country. Cartier-Bresson, too, was an idealist. He believed that photographs made with intellectual honesty could make the world a better place.

Today we are skeptical about the meaning and import of photographic depictions in a way that audiences 30 years ago would not have been. Political and celebrity scandals, media hype, and Photoshop have tarnished, although not totally destroyed, our belief in the veracity of photographic portraiture. The works in the current exhibition Constructed Identities, most drawn from the museum’s collection and many of them recent gifts from George Stephanopoulos, examine some of the ways that belief has been explored and exploited by artists over the past half century. These photographs, books, and videos employ the characteristics and clichés of reportage, the snapshot, the family album, scientific documentation, and other genres to construct identities, some factual and some fictive.

In contrast to the “fly on the wall” reportage of Cartier-Bresson’s images, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol consciously posed the 15 color Polaroids in the 1975 Little Red Book #237, probably taken in the artist’s New York studio. We will never know which poses were Jagger’s creations and which Warhol’s. Some of the images seem like a formalist experiment while others demonstrate the feline sexuality, aesthete’s frailty, and world-weary aura that Jagger had by this time codified as part of his rock star persona.

The 12 African American couples in Pine & Woods For One Moment, from the artists’ series The American Typologies (2007), were also posing, but for snapshots by a friend or family member. Gail Pine and Jacqueline Woods select found snapshots and display them in grids that form a typology—a set of variants on a single theme—in order to discover social structures and emotional truths. “A snapshot accesses memory and makes tangible what is elusive,” Pine says. In the artists’ typologies, it is hard to resist accessing our own memories and also applying them to other people’s snapshots.

Found photographs are the basis of Zoe Crosher’s The Archives of Michele duBois. These imagesall belonged to, and show, an American woman with at least five aliases who lived in the Pacific Rim in the 1970s–80s, occasionally working as an escort. “DuBois” gave Crosher 20 years of snapshots, informal portraits and self-portraits, and professional portraits. The artist organized, recontextualized, manipulated, and rephotographed this photographic material to create multiple “portraits” of duBois, including a four-volume set of limited-edition, print-on-demand books entitled The Archives of Michele duBois, 2011–12, which are in the exhibition. Just as a traditional portrait informs us about the artist as well as the sitter, the arrangement and use of an archive becomes a portrait of the archivist.


The Coming Insurrection

The Coming Insurrection 2007. Joshua Lutz (American, born 1975). Digital chromogenic print; 61 x 51 cm. Collection of Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell. © Joshua Lutz


Family archives and differing family recollections were the starting point for Joshua Lutz’s book Hesitating Beauty, a portrait of his mother’s mental illness and its impact on their family. In his book, four types of images bridge the objective and the subjective: photographs by Lutz of his mother and family, images rephotographed from the family archive, staged photographs using actors to reenact memories that had left no visual residue, and straight images that he took of “things that I saw in the world as I was imagining a psychotic state.” A single truthful version of the family history may not be possible, so Hesitating Beauty instead strives to produce empathy and, through that, some measure of understanding.

The alienation, loneliness, and stresses of post–World War II life are the subjects of William DeLappa’s The Portraits of Violet and Al. Twenty-eight photographs appear to be enlargements of snapshots from a family album chronicling a young couple from 1947 to the early 1960s, but the images were actually shot in 1973 using actors. The scenes display some romance, but more tensions and disappointments. As is the case in much successful fiction, this ersatz family album rings true because it is based upon real life—DeLappa’s observations and memories of his own family’s history.


Video Site Documentation: Lexus Fire Pit Site, Sonoran Desert, Arizona, U.S.A.

Video Site Documentation: Lexus Fire Pit Site, Sonoran Desert, Arizona, U.S.A. 1985. Patrick Nagatani (American, born 1945). Chromogenic print; 18.1 x 23.9 cm. Gift of George Stephanopoulos 2012.337 © Patrick Nagatani


Ancient—or perhaps future—history is the subject of Patrick Nagatani’s Ryoichi|Nagatani Excavations (1985–2001). This ensemble of photographs and text relates the saga of the Japanese scientist Ryoichi’s explorations of a group of archaeological sites around the world. Each site contained a remarkably well-preserved, low-mileage automobile that must have been buried there centuries earlier—but how is that possible? All that remains from this quest are photographs of the sites with the cars in situ, stills from video documentation, extreme close-up photographs of artifacts found at the site, and images of pages from Ryoichi’s journal. The artifacts have disappeared and the cars have been reburied so that the sites look undisturbed. In his final diary entry, Ryoichi relates what his archaeological team learned, “that the search for scientific truth and fact is perhaps less important that the existence and possibilities of the story.”

A story ripped from tabloid headlines is the subject of Josh Gosfield’s Gigi: The Black Flower series. Gigi is a singer/songwriter and pop teen idol in the 1960s whose personal tragedies transform her from a star into a celebrity, as famous for her misadventures as for her art. Hounded by the press, she disappears. But did she ever really exist? Gosfield created an extensive archive of persuasive artifacts and images including a music video “directed by Jean-Luc Godard,” the trailer for a forthcoming documentary on Gigi’s life, and a blow-up of a cover from a 1972 French magazine about her disappearance. This seductive portrait of a fictional figure is also a meditation on the powers and perils of celebrity in the age of mass media.

We find ourselves wanting to believe the portrayals in this show, even the fictional ones. A good story well told is very compelling. Plus, some faith in the veracity of photography remains in our culture. Even though our time is cynical about photographic portrayals, we still experience the sense of wonder and awe felt by 19th-century audiences at the ability of the photographer to reflect or create an entirely believable persona on a flat sheet of paper. 

Cleveland Art, January/February 2015