Tom Hinson Curator of Photography
Ever since photography’s introduction in America in 1840, portraiture has captured the interest of photographers and the rapt attention of viewers. Photography made likenesses of family and friends readily available, and portraits quickly found wide distribution in the 19th century. During the first half of the 20th century, photographic portraiture underwent profound changes. Depictions of the figure ranged from the aesthetic to the documentary, staged to candid, carefully conceived to spontaneous, and straightforward to physically, politically, and psychologically charged. The first installation in the museum’s new Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Galleries features compelling portraits from the CMA collection dating from the second half of the 20th century onward.
Since the 1960s portraiture has been largely shaped by three approaches: traditional presentations that explore the psychology of the sitter (and sometimes of the artist); spontaneous images of people in varied situations and environments; and symbolic representations where the photographer questions
accepted notions of truth and reality by temporarily staging, arranging, and constructing often complex scenes with people as the protagonists.
In the first category, Richard Avedon’s iconic Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981is one of the most memorable portraits from the 775 he made for his landmark series In the American West. Fischer, from the University of California at Davis, brought 120,000 bees to the shoot. This perfect confluence of idea and execution resulted in a dramatic image of the beekeeper at total peace with the mass of insects arranged in an allover, abstract pattern on his upper body. Other photographers in the exhibition whose work follows similar objectives include Abe Frajndlich and Jen Davis.
Spontaneous images are represented by many artists, including Danny Lyon, Larry Fink, and Andrea Modica. Lyon’s engaging portrait of a Navajo boy shooting pool uses the photographer’s outstanding technical skills at composition and lighting to call attention to the mysterious, sometimes perilous world of spare, neighborhood pool halls and their occupants. The rigid geometric shapes of the overhead light and the pool tables, cues, and balls provide a sense of order to a game propelled by human movement and emotion.
More recently, photographers have deliberately played on the potential “staginess” of the photographic medium in order to suggest narratives or comment on the nature of reality. Major works by Duane Michals, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, Julie Blackmon, Willie Robert Middlebrook, and Elisabeth Sunday demonstrate the possibilities of this creative approach. The Kitchen Table Series, a 20-print matrix with accompanying texts by Carrie Mae Weems, depicts a series of tableaux of a woman and her relationships with a man, a daughter, her friends, and herself. Acquired last year, it has never been displayed before.
Photographers rely on innovation, and the advent of digital photography has significantly advanced the diversity of available approaches. Standards of beauty and the concept of a portrait as an idealized likeness are constantly challenged by an expanding interpretation of the human condition.
Visit these new galleries often. The displays change three times throughout the year, each featuring a different theme in the museum’s photography collection and exploring another aspect of this rich medium.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2009