January 12 - March 1, 2008
Opening Reception: January 12, 6:30 - 8:30pm
Exhibition curated by Phyllis Rosenzweig
This show previews new work by Chan CHAO and includes a large-scale window installation by Beat STREULI. Portraits is Curated by Phyllis ROSENZWEIG and shows work by Chan CHAO, Rineke DIJKSTRA, Zwelethu MTHETHWA, Collier SCHORR, Malick SIDIBE, Alec SOTH, and Beat STREULI.
NOTES ON: Formal Snapshots, Ethnography and Contemporary Portrait Photography
By Phyllis Rosenzweig
The artists in this exhibition plumb various, even contradictory, conventions in the history of portraiture and photography - the formal portrait, the ethnographic study, and the snapshot - and stand them on their heads. In doing so they create images that are often formally beautiful yet also disconcerting. Difficult to read, they deny traditional expectations of what a portrait should be while, ironically, confirming its most traditional, ceremonial function.
The formal portrait has a long history in both Eastern and Western cultures. Its purpose was to present and glorify the sitter, who usually hired the maker of the image. The sitters’ features would be recognizable to the viewer, but the portrait was intended less to reveal an individual personality than to present a likeness of a public, symbolic person. Meant to show off all the attributes of the sitters’ wealth, prestige, and station in life, the portrait dictated certain formal conventions: the subjects look at the viewer (and artist) conveying the message that they are aware that a picture is being made and that it will be looked at; the pose is formal and the body serves to display as much paraphernalia – medals, insignias, rich fabrics, etc. - as possible to explicate that person’s ceremonial or symbolic role. In short, the portrait presupposes that whoever looks at it will recognize the subject as a powerful and important person.
Although not always historically referred to as “portraits” per se, anthropological studies nevertheless borrow the conventions of formal portraiture of important personages, and for much the same purpose. Used to document and categorize ‘types,’ the power relationship between sitter, viewer and artist is reversed, and the sitter has been asked or even made to pose by the picture maker. However, the sitters again often face the viewer and the body is arranged to display the accoutrements that demonstrate a classification, such as “Sioux Warrior” for example. The individual is significant as a symbol although this time the portrait serves not as a symbol of power but, subliminally or overtly, of subjugation. Although perhaps admired by viewers for their beauty or nobility, the sitters are, nevertheless, objectified. Their images were made to be judged and examined by others who deem themselves to be in a superior position.
The snapshot is the most contemporary of the portrait genres, the one most linked to the invention of the photograph, and to the development of the esthetic of the ordinary and the everyday. Overtly more casual and egalitarian than the official portrait or ethnographic study, the snapshot connotes a more personal relationship between the amateur picture taker and the subject documented. Nevertheless, aware of being photographed, the subjects, while trying to look “natural,” often assume poses codified by the pictorial conventions of the formal and the ethnographic picture.
In the work of photographers like Rineke Dijkstra, Chan Chao, Collier Schorr, and Alec Soth, the frontality of the formal portrait, the awkwardness of the anthropological record, and the purposeful casualness of the snapshot esthetic combine. They, and other photographers in this exhibition also often work in series and represent groups, somewhat like ethnographers or archivists: young people in parks (Rineke Dijkstra); women of different nationalities in a prison in Peru (Chan Chao); people who happen to live in Niagara Falls (Alec Soth). Neither joined by status nor by traditional categories such as tribe, nationality, or family group, these subjects seem to be individuals rather than representative ‘types,’ and their portraits assume a certain quality, however deceptively, of the informal snapshot.
Conversely, the individuals who came, or brought their baby, to be photographed at Malick Sidibe’s studio, pose with such verve that they turn the conventions of the formal studio portrait on its head.
If the formal portrait and the snapshot imply to a certain degree the complicity between subject and photographer (however skewed the power arrangements may be), what then are we to make of the photographs by Beat Streuli, which seem to reveal so much more about their subjects’ inner lives than those of the other photographers. Is it a portrait if the sitters do not know that they are being photographed?
Gallery Hours are Thursday - Saturday, Noon - 5pm
(and by appointment)
4718 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 20011