From photography’s earliest days, portraits of politicians, scientists and the otherwise eminent tended to a formality that ensured a sense of dignity and a fitting seriousness of purpose. After all, these leaders and avatars of progress could not be depicted as men or women given to the slightest frivolity, human nature be damned. Thus, as this exhibit showcases, vintage19th-century images of French ministers, British royalty, or American senators and presidents are studies in stiff-backed rectitude or, in the case of princesses, softly ennobled womanhood.
Not surprisingly, photography’s early images of statesmen often show them seated, with pen in hand as if to sign an important treaty, exuding competence and diligence. Indeed, the seminal photographer Nadar granted an immemorial stature to his shadowed subjects. This held for the most famous, such as Abraham Lincoln or Samuel Morse, to the forgotten legislators of Lincoln’s day, as well as for the statesmen and great men up to and including much of the 1950s. But it is not long into the ‘50s that times, and photographic fashion, began to change.
By 1955, in fact, world leaders such as Winston Churchill are photographed in all their vulnerability, in some cases moved to tears, as photographers such as Larry Burrows and Henri Cartier-Bresson locate their subjects in the everyday world.
The 1960s, of course, would herald a loosening of photographic (and virtually all) tradition on a large scale, as photographers Vytas Valaitis and Paul Schutzer captured candid, utterly human moments in which icons like Jacqueline Kennedy are seen socializing merrily with the likes of Charles DeGaulle, while the Kennedy men are photographed at ease, in ways that herald a truly modern form of celebrity. The days of carefully stage-managed photographic moments--in which a Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt were glimpsed among the people, exuding a modern optimism–yielded to a new naturalism in photography. This exhibit chronicles the great distance between yesterday’s strict formality and today’s transparency.