Santa Barbara

Portrait Photography in the Age of Instagram

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In 2012, everyone in the world will have his or her picture taken. Facebook, Instagram, and even, in an indirect way, Twitter, all feed on the innate human desire to see and recognize the unique features of an individual countenance, often without regard for whether or not the actual person will ever cross one's path. The face, in the digital realm, is merely a symbol, a logo that can be swept up in new waves of facial recognition programs dreamt up by Silicon Valley startups. Everyone can, and will be photographed. While this statement is quite obviously untrue, it sure feels true. There are plenty of people out there with no access to technology, never mind the ones who just don't like being photographed, but the camera's eye seems ubiquitous, at least some of the time, and especially when perusing the various social media that inundate our digital devices.

But now, into the oncoming path of a digital tsunami of photographic portraits strides one of the 19th century's primary social media -- the art museum. The portrait gallery is the original Facebook wall. With "Portrayal/Betrayal," an expansive exhibition of photographic portraits from the museum's permanent collection, Santa Barbara Museum of Art curator Karen Sinsheimer takes on the rising tide of amateur portrait mediocrity with over one hundred examples of the real thing -- portraits by photographers operating at the top of their games, and solving the perpetual problem of negotiating the complex relations among subject, photographer, and audience that are called up anytime a portrait is produced.

Although "Portrayal/Betrayal" was not initially conceived with the Instagram audience in mind, there are at least two aspects to Sinsheimer's curatorial approach that make this exhibit an ideal real-world stop for anyone who's contemplating their next shoot. First, there's the fact that this is, thanks to the museum's "guide by cell" technology, a thoroughly interactive experience. To hear the opinion of someone else on any work you encounter, just dial the number on the wall card and punch in the photo's ID. Some of the recordings you will hear are made by professionals in the field of photography, while others are the responses of audience members just like you. And, if you happen to find one that you have something to say about, go ahead and leave your own track. Who knows? You may trigger someone else's next big insight.

Second, there's the curatorial concept, which discards the idea of a meta-narrative of development capable of corralling all portrait photography into a single story, and instead invokes the pluralism of multiple solutions to the same aesthetic problem -- how to create a meaningful image. It's not only a relief to enter a museum that doesn't tell you what to think, it's an intense rush to discover some of the many ways that other artists have overcome the obstacles that stand between the viewer and a rare experience.

Hendrik Kerstens, <em>Paper Roll</em>, 2008. Chromogenic print. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds provided by PhotoFutures.

Take toilet paper, for example. Or, more specifically, take the rolls of toilet paper with which photographer Hendrik Kerstens adorned his daughter's head for "Paper Rolls," the 2008 image that adorns the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It's an incredibly rich image, reminiscent in its luminosity, tenderness, and pose of Johannes Vermeer's classic painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring." It works as an amazing kind of visual sleight of hand, with that most down to earth (and necessary!) of contemporary domestic items, the roll of toilet paper, standing in for the bourgeois headgear of the Dutch 17th century. For Sinsheimer, this image was one of her most thrilling acquisitions. "As soon as I saw it at Photo LA, I knew we had to have it. It's such an iconic work. Plus, only months later, the value of Kersten's work had already shot up."

Steve Davis, <em>Robert, Oakridge</em> from the series 'Captured Youth', 2005. Pigment Print. Courtesy of James Harris Gallery.

So, what does it take to get noticed (and acquired) by an experienced curator of photography? Once we had admired Kerstens' handy way with a headdress, various other devices for framing the subject within the image began jumping out at us as we traversed the gallery. In Steve Davis's "Robert, Oakridge 92005" a boy stares out at the viewer over the gum bubble he's blown to cover his mouth. The bubble vies for attention with the boy's impassive gaze, but it doesn't take on its full range of implications until one knows that it comes from a series called "Captured Youth." Robert's gesture reflects his captivity; the bubble is one way he's found to resist the sense that he no longer controls his own life. By picking up on this, the photographer not only found an object that nicely sets off the image's primary subject, which is the face; he has also revealed the subject's intent, and indicated his state of mind, all without a trace of sentimentality or moral judgment.

Elsewhere, Instagram addicts would do well to consider the basics, as they are expressed in one form or another by nearly every image in the show. Take "Suzanne in Contortion," a 1990 image by Joyce Tenneson. Color, check; gorgeous model, check; but "contortion"--what is that doing here? The answer is something that every amateur portrait photographer would do well to consider. By including the model's hands and arms as integral parts of the composition, Tenneson realizes one of photography's most fundamental goals, which is to make sense not only of the thing pictured, but also of the stuff around the thing. By taking it to the next level, and exaggerating the pose, so that, rather than throwing up another clichéd gang sign, Suzanne is doing something that's intense, beautiful, and symmetrical -- not to mention considerably less difficult than the attention grabbing title would indicate -- the artist has arrived at an image that's not common, but rare.

Another major benefit of crashing the galleries for a visit to see these images in person is the physicality of work that has been successfully printed and framed. Looking at Nicholas Nixon's "Brown Sisters" photos in sequence would probably work if they were to appear as an album on Nixon's Facebook page, but thank god they're not. In the flesh, these black and white photos are enormously evocative, producing a record in black and white of the way one family has known that "eternity is in love with the productions of time." These photographs separate iPhone photo junkies from the golden-eyed photographer, forever changing the way see -- or take -- a picture.

Tseng Kwong Chi, <em>Disneyland, CA</em>, 1979, From the series 'Expeditionary Self-Portrait'. Gelatin silver print. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds provided by PhotoFutures.

Don Normark, <em>Pampas Grass and Matching Dog</em>, Phoenix, Arizona, 1974. Gelatin silver print, ed. 2/25. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds provided by Eric Skipsey.

'Portrayal/Betrayal' is on view through September 16 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. For information, visit their website.


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Top Image: Joyce Tenneson, Suzanne in Contortion, 1990. Chromogenic print. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Arthur B. Steinman.

About the Author

Charles Donelan has lived in Santa Barbara since 2001. He writes about visual art, music, theater, and books for the Santa Barbara Independent, where he is the arts editor. Prior to his arrival in Santa Barbara, Donelan lived in N...
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