“The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years”, which just opened at the National Gallery of Art, ranges from five Alfred Stieglitz portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe to even more intriguing “self”-portraits like Gillian Wearing as Robert Mapplethorpe.
The new exhibit illustrates what Stieglitz, the leader and champion of American fine art photography, thought — no single image could capture the essence of a person, and portraiture should function as a “photographic diary”.
The free show features more than 150 works by 20 artists who photographed the same friends, family, or themselves many times over days, months, or years.
Some of the most familiar examples are famed husbands’ photographs of their wives, like five of Stieglitz’s 300 portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, before, during, and after their tumultuous marriage.
The first in the show was taken in 1918, months after Stieglitz wrote, “I think I could do thousands of things of you — a life work to express you.” O’Keeffe’s initial sensuality and femininity transform into to icy androgyny in the 1930 portrait of the artist.
Some of Paul Strand’s 100-plus portraits of his wife Rebecca (“Beck”) are in this first section, accompanied by Stieglitz’s more expressive and erotic photos of Beck — one of his many lovers.
Harry Callahan’s wife Eleanor was his main subject. Eleanor Callahan, who attended the National Gallery’s opening of “Harry Callahan at 100” late last year, said that he would see a certain light and say, “‘Take off your clothes.’ And that was that.”
One of the most fascinating stories behind the camera regards Milton Rogovin, who died last year at age 101 — “He defied the idea that the good die young,” commented the exhibit’s curator Sarah Kennel, the National Gallery’s associate curator of photographs.
Rogovin had refused to testify before Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, and was forced to close his optometry business in Buffalo. Rogovin said that he would not be silenced, and used his camera to communicate his deep desire for a more just society.
His son Mark told me at the exhibit’s press preview that his father “spent 50 years photographing the poor with dignity.”
Milton Rogovin’s serial photos include Mrs. Lopez and six confirmation girls in 1974 and 1985; Samuel P. “Pee Wee” West from 1974 to 2002; and “Sugar” over a span of two decades, among other poor minorities in Buffalo’s Lower West Side.
Asked about the McCarthy impact, Mark Rogovin said, “On some levels, it was the kick in the pants that got my father outside and into the community with his camera. But nothing could make up for the devastation McCarthyism caused to people in America.”
The son added, “Now, this thrilling block of work is here for all to see. On some levels, he is an unknown photographer to most. To see him along with these greats is a thrill for our family.”
One tragic story, much better known, is of Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide at age 22 in 1981. Her self-portraits in the show range from provocative images and titles, like “Self-deceit #1”, to the ephemeral and elusive, “Caryatid” and several untitled ones.
Ilse Bing first photographed herself at age 14 in 1913 when she received a Kodak Brownie camera for her birthday. In 1931, her self-portrait includes a Leica — Bing was known as “Queen of the Leica”. Those, like many of her works, show her reflected in a mirror. “Self-Portrait” in 1988 is an eerie, none-too-subtle collage of prior photos, shards of mirrors, daisies, and a clock.
Also foreshadowing death is Gillian Wearing’s “Me as Mapplethorpe”, based upon Mapplethorpe’s final self-portrait in 1988, a year before he died from AIDS. Wearing wears a silicone face mask of the artist, and carries his walking stick, which is topped with a metal skull.
The only sign that it’s Wearing and not Mapplethorpe himself is the seam between the mask and her eyes, “an unsettling detail that exposes the thin line between truth and fiction.”
On a similar theme, Vibeke Tandberg assumes an androgynous appearance and digitally merges her face with features of friends and acquaintances in a dozen photos entitled “Faces”. They show “the malleability of personality and gender,” curator Kennel noted.
Ditto Nikki S. Lee, who transformed herself into a member of subcultures, even learning skateboarding, or deeply tanning herself, or dieting for her photographic “projects”. They include “The Skateboarding Project”, “The Hip Hop Project” and “The Lesbian Project”.
Another particularly interesting project focuses on the faces of “The Brown Sisters” — four sisters through almost four decades, from 1975 through 2011. Nicholas Nixon’s 37 prints of his wife Bebe and her three sisters epitomize the serial approach to portraiture, or the photographic diary.
“The Serial Portrait” shares the same dates, September 30 through December 31, with the National Gallery’s exquisite “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540”.
For more info: “The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years”, www.nga.gov/exhibitions/serialinfo.shtm, National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue, NW, between 3rd and 7th Streets, Washington, DC. Free admission to the museum and to its programs. Exhibition open from September 30 through December 31, as is “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540”, www.nga.gov/exhibitions/augsburginfo.shtm.