Opinion

New Exhibit Probes Changes in Portrait Photography

Yolanda Del Amo, "Minou, David" (2006) (image via flakphoto.com)
Yolanda Del Amo, “Minou, David” (2006) (image via flakphoto.com)

OAKLAND, Calif. — The stereotype of SnapChat — that it’s for sending naked pictures — undergirds a more common but mundane usage: it’s used for sending pictures of ourselves. And what is a picture of ourselves but a portrait? From curating Facebook albums to assembling Flickr collections, we spend a lot of our time looking at and producing portraits. Portraiture is more relevant than ever thanks to the internet.

 

Christopher Churhill, "TB Hayes, Folk Artist" (2005) (via flakphoto.com)
Christopher Churchill, “TB Hayes, Folk Artist” (2005) (via flakphoto.com)

Making Pictures of People, a new exhibition from FlakPhoto in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, takes portrait photography and puts it in two exhibition spaces: one in a museum, called About Face, and the other online, though also accessible in the museum gallery through touch screens.

Interior of the exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Click to view larger.
Interior of the exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Click to view larger.

“The goal of our collaboration is twofold,” Andy Adams says, “to celebrate the complementary experiences of engaging with photographs as objects and as images and to connect museum visitors and web-based audiences with the international community of image-makers engaged in photographic practice online … I’m interested in expanding the notion of the browser as an exhibition space, and the emphasis here is online accessibility, not physical photographic presence.”

Paul D'Amato, "LaToya" (2012) (via flakphoto.com)
Paul D’Amato, “LaToya” (2012) (via flakphoto.com)

While I can’t review the physical space exhibition, which is taking place in Kansas City, the online exhibition features 27 photographers who focus on notions of identity. Each photographer receives a space online in which they answer questions about their work. Taking this notion of the browser as an exhibition space, the photos are laid out in sections by photographer, and we scroll sideways to see the images, as if walking along a wall of photos. Taking advantage of the affordances of a digital exhibition, each photo contains rich interviews with the artists about their process and inspiration.

A screenshot of Making Pictures of People. All images courtesy Andy Adams at FlakPhoto.
A screenshot of Making Pictures of People. All images courtesy Andy Adams at FlakPhoto.

While the idea of bringing together an online and a physical exhibition is strong, I would have loved to see the exhibition itself push notions of portraiture further and bring up questions of access and technology. These questions remain implied in the exhibition concept and the notion of the browser as a space, but the images themselves don’t take into account the new ways we approach photography. One question that could be worth exploring is this notion of who is making the photos and what their access is to tools of image making. I was struck by an interview with photographer Matt Eich, in which he talks about how he approaches his sitters:

I was originally sent to Mississippi on an editorial assignment, but was drawn into the lives of the residents of this place and have been returning ever since. I often make portraits as a default, but here it is different. Sometimes I have control; sometimes I turn it over entirely. Some people I know, and the images develop over time as our relationship evolves. Sometimes it is a fleeting moment, and a person will stop me and say, “Hey camera man, take my picture!” and the bond is forged.

An interview like this gets us into the mind of the photographer, an opportunity rarely afforded in physical exhibitions (aside from artist talks, of course).  But what were the photos their subjects were taking of each other? What was in their iPhone photo album and their Facebook album? In an age where so many people have access to cameras and camera phones, I’m curious about how technology has shifted the relationship between the professional photographer and the average individual.

Lydia Panas, "Vink Sisters" (2008) (via flakphoto.com)
Lydia Panas, “Vink Sisters” (2008) (via flakphoto.com)

In each collection, we see strong and often insightful images created by an artist versed in photography as an art form and practice. But it seems like the opportunity for a dialogue between a museum and an online gallery would also incorporate online-native forIs ms of expression and portraiture in dialogue with traditional forms of portraiture.

On the other hand, what we do have is a lovely survey of contemporary photographers and interviews about their work. And in so many of the interviews there is a growing self-consciousness of the photographer as photographer. These images are less about a single, solitary gaze and more about a relationship.

Dina Kantor, "Keren Amir" (2006) (via flakphoto.com)
Dina Kantor, “Keren Amir” (2006) (via flakphoto.com)

Dina Kantor, a Minneapolis photographer of Finnish descent and with a mother who later converted to Judaism, traveled to Finland to photograph the Jewish community:

One of the things that I loved about making this work was how I straddled the line between insider and outsider. I wasn’t part of the community, through relation or otherwise, but because of our shared cultural characteristics we had a deep connection. Everything I grew up doing, they did too — just on the other side of the world. In making these portraits, I was able to investigate my own heritage and learn about myself while photographing a community of 1,500 people who were completely unknown to me.

Making Pictures of People and About Face continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri) and online (flakphoto.com) until January 14, 2013.

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