National Gallery of Art presents The Serial Portrait. Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years

. October 15, 2012

National Gallery of Art opens The Serial Portrait. Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years, an exhibition on view in the West Building’s Ground Floor photography galleries from September 30 through December 31, 2012.


Lee Friedlander, Haverstraw, New York, 1966. Gelatin silver print, 21.7 x 32.7 cm (8 9/16 x 12 7/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Trellis Fund© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Arranged both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition features 153 works by 20 artists who photographed the same subjects—friends, family, and themselves—numerous times over days, months, or years to create compelling portrait studies that investigate the many facets of personal and social identity.

“The Gallery’s photography collection essentially began with the donation of Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘key set,’ so it is fitting that this exhibition opens with portraits by Stieglitz, who understood that a person’s character was best captured through a series of photographs taken over time,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “Although the exhibition is drawn largely from the Gallery’s significant collection of photographs, we are grateful to the lenders who have allowed us to present more fully the serial form of portraiture that Stieglitz championed.”

Since the introduction of photography in 1839, portraiture has been one of the most widely practiced forms of the medium. Starting in the early 20th century, however, some photographers began to question whether one image alone could adequately capture the complexity of an individual. As Alfred Stieglitz, the era’s leading champion of American fine art photography, argued: “to demand the [single] portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person is as futile as to demand that a motion picture will be condensed into a single still.”

Along with Stieglitz, some of the 20th century’s most prominent photographers—Paul Strand, Harry Callahan, and Emmet Gowin—used the camera serially to transcend the limits of a single image. Each of these photographers made numerous studies of their lovers that sought to redefine the expressive possibilities of portraiture while probing the affective bonds of love and desire.

By employing the camera’s capacity to record fluctuating states of being and mark the passage of time, other photographers such as Nicholas Nixon and Milton Rogovin have documented individuals—in families or communities—over four decades. Capturing subtle and dramatic shifts in appearance, demeanor, and situation, these series are poignant and elegiac memorials that remind us of our own mortality.

Other photographers have made serial self-portraits that explore the malleability of personal identity and the possibility of reinvention afforded by the camera. By photographing themselves as shadows, blurs, or partial reflections, Ilse Bing, Lee Friedlander, and Francesca Woodman have created inventive but elusive images that hint at the instability of self-representation. Conceptual artists of the 1970s and 1980s such as Vito Acconci, Blythe Bohnen, and Ann Hamilton have explicitly combined performance and self-portraiture to stage continual self-transformations. The exhibition concludes with work from the last 15 years by artists such as Nikki S. Lee and Gillian Wearing, who take the performance of self to its limits by adopting masquerades to delve into the ways identity is inferred from external appearance.

The curator of the exhibition is Sarah Kennel, associate curator of photographs, National Gallery of Art, with assistance from Ksenya Gurshtein, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in the department of photographs.

For information call (202) 737-4215 or the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) at (202) 842-6176, or visit the Gallery’s Web site at www.nga.gov

Category: Photography

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