Issue #184  10/13/2011
Photo Book Review: a Smithsonian Survey of Portraiture's Changing Face

By Matt Damsker



By Shannon Thomas Perich. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C. Hardcover, $35; 176 pages, 150 black-and-white and color illustrations; ISBN No. 978-1-58834-274-4. Information: http://www.smithsonianbooks.com .

From the slight pun of its title to its rear dust-jacket image, by Nickolas Muray, of Frida Kahlo in all her mono-browed glory, this study of American portrait photography is an appropriately edgy, energized work of scholarship that doesn't expound excessively or force its points. Author Shannon Thomas Perich, an associate curator of the Smithsonian's Photographic History Collection, is well-credentialed to make the choices she has made: ten photographers that represent the parameters of photo-portraiture, beginning with the daguerreotypes of Boston's George K. Warren, innovator of the photographic yearbook, whose images of 19th-century America include classic shots of P.T. Barnum, Edward Everett Hale, young and old sitters, and whose eye was at once painterly and unsentimental, instinctively presaging the naturalism and modernism of the next century.

From there, Perich guides us through the work of some obvious and not-so-obvious selections--the ethereally expressive exposures of Julia Margaret Cameron (including one of Charles Darwin), the wonderfully populist images of Houston's Barr & Wright Studio, and such 20th-century giants as Gertrude Kasebier, Dorothea Lange, Muray and Richard Avedon, along with the final three contemporaries: Henry Horenstein, Lauren Greenfield, and Robert Weingarten. In each case, Perich provides concise biographical and technical information, but avoids any grandiloquence. The visual evidence tends to speak for itself.

Of course, one can quibble as to why no Diane Arbus, no Southworth & Hawes, no Irving Penn, or any number of others, but Perich addresses the impossible issue of total inclusion. For one thing, all the images are drawn from the collection she curates within the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, so these are photos she knows as well as anyone, other than the photographers themselves. More to the point, she writes of her ten choices: "Their work offers multiple original approaches to portraiture that remain informed by conventions and innovations. This photography provides a context for thinking about changes in the medium and the ways in which photographers present their subjects as shaped by their aesthetic intentions, intellectual explorations, and commercial desires."

These intentions, explorations and desires are evident enough to us in the classic output of, say, Warren and Cameron, but by the time Perich brings us to the eloquent, early 20th-century output of Kasebier, we see the stirrings of real photographic modernism in all its complexity. Kasebier's 1900 chiaroscuro portrait of a cigarette-smoking Rose O'Neill, for example, implies a certain proto-feminist rebelliousness; clearly, this is a woman with her own ideas about life.

Moving on to Dorothea Lange and the Depression-era iconography she created as a Farm Security Administration photographer, Perich draws the curtain on the great emergence of photo-journalism as art. The justly famed 1936 "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California" is the portrait that denotes Lange's greatness--a Michelangelo-esque unity of form and meaning that never fails to cut us to the bone, as the not-so-young mother looks beyond us, bravely yet gravely, with her children sculpturally enfolded about her. In a stroke, it seems, Lange expresses the highest ideals and potential of photo-portraiture, forever affirming photography's capacity for social realism and aesthetic depth.

From the likes of Muray and Avedon, by contrast, we see the blossoming of photography as the great accomplice of pop culture. Muray's 1921 images of flappers and semi-nude dancers may have captured that roaring era, but by the '40s and '50s his commercial color work--mainly of movie stars, from Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich to fan-magazine cover shots of Frank Sinatra--defined the slick salesmanship of Hollywood. From Avedon, we get unflattered faces that press at us, tightly cropped, whether that of a black man born into slavery (William Casby, 1963) or of the famous: Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound with their eyes pressed shut in rapture or pain, Bertrand Russell in pugnacious profile, Joe Louis's meaty fist, a theatrically creepy Alfred Hitchcock. Modern portraiture is pushing at its limits.

Among her final three selections, there's Henry Horenstein, perhaps a surprise inclusion. The quintessential Baby Boomer (born in 1947), Horenstein has absorbed the obvious influences and, as Perich explains, his agenda is to record "the people that history may forget to include…by documenting their existence and environment." Whether capturing the domestic geometry of his mother and family dogs in their Massachusetts kitchen in 1971, or his aged Aunt Loney walking through a graveyard in 1997, or Waylon Jennings in a squalid backstage corner, a burlesque dancer cheaply on display in New York, or a man sitting on a gymnasium bench in South Boston, Horenstein connects character to context with a naturalism steeped in non-judgmental, democratic spirit.

Then there's Lauren Greenfield, another photo-journalist and filmmaker who ushers in the 21st century with color-steeped Cibachrome prints of girls and young women, many of them struggling through eating disorders and self-image challenges that force us to confront the values of a media-maddened society. These images of womanhood at war with itself--undergoing plastic surgery to "correct" a large nose, or before-and-after shots of anorectic teens--seem to subvert the lush, candied hues in which the tales are told.

Finally, there are Robert Weingarten's digital mash-ups, in which the "portraits" of famous Americans--Dennis Hopper, Buzz Aldrin, Colin Powell, Sandra Day O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and others--are comprised not of their faces but from symbolic images derived from their answers to Weingarten's question: "What makes you who you are?" Thus, a motorcycle, rear-view mirror, gas station, and a barely discernible Warhol portrait of Mao define Hopper in one montage, while the Brooklyn streets of Colin Powell's boyhood blend seamlessly with the names on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, a Purple Heart, and the silhouette of Thomas Jefferson's statue. If this is the psycho-historical portraiture of our fragmented, involuted digital age, Weingarten makes it pulsate with Renaissance richness and light. It's a fitting conclusion to Perich's compelling journey.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)