What Does a Portrait Reveal?
SBMA Portrayal/Betrayal Exhibition Features Over 100 Works from Permanent Collection
On View June 2 – September 16, 2012
March 12, 2012 - What does a portrait reveal? Does the subject portray the real self or betray things about the self: as master photographer Diane Arbus noted, “There's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you.”
Portrayal/Betrayal offers over 100 photographic portraits drawn from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art's permanent collection, with a few notable loans from private collections. Organized into nine distinct groups, each section reflects a different conceptual approach and explores the complex relationships that exist between the photographer and sitter. The viewer is the third member of the triad as he or she interprets a portrait decades later, far removed from the cultural, geographical, and psychological context in which the image was conceived.
Countless exhibitions and endless pages in art history books have been devoted to the genre of portraiture, because portraits conjure up a viewer's own memories, desires, fears, or hopes. Ultimate truths will never reveal themselves, for the dynamic among the photographer, the subject, and the viewer shifts over time. Whether collisions or collusions occurred at the moment the image was captured may never be known, but in 2012, it is expected that 250 billion photographs will be made and the predominant subject will be ourselves. It is clear that the genre remains both fascinating and complex.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
Face Forward: The Untouched Image: Beginning as a straightforward document, the photographic portrait was valued for its veracity as a pure likeness. Among the few remaining unapologetic portraits are those made for government-issued documents, such as passports and drivers’ licenses. The person behind the camera usually a non-professional, and the subject, bathed in a harsh light, stands against a white backdrop facing forward. Few people, if anyone, like their ID image (with the exception being Greta Garbo, though her passport photograph was taking by well-known portrait photographer George Hoyningen-Huene) but such images are perhaps the truest representations with little artifice. The photo booth cedes limited control to the sitter, thought the background is equally as stark and the light as bright. In Richard Gordon’s image, two small girls seem to hold their breath as they eagerly anticipate the click of the shutter―and the resulting captured moment.
Face Value: Negotiation Between Subject and Photographer: The making of a portrait is often a dynamic negotiation, with control shifting between the artist and sitter, as they share the same time and space, each with a common goal. The subject may alternate between vulnerability and command or the subject may take command. There seems to be no doubt about who's in charge in Vladimir Kucherov's Character (1986). In contrast, in the image Robert, Oakridge (2005), the subject seems lost in his own world and oblivious to the photographer Steve Davis, as he absently blows and bubblegum bubble.
Facades: In the Subject’s Space: Other portraits capture unguarded moments when the subject is unaware of the camera (before paparazzi and model releases) and often reveal what otherwise would remain unseen. Robert Frank, whose 1950s images of The Americans outraged many people, sought to immortalize “what is invisible to others”―to show ourselves to ourselves. Illustrating this point, photographer Natan Dvir captures a beautiful young woman in Christian Pilgrim After Baptism in the Jordan River (2007) who is so caught up in rapture from the recently-performed sacrament, that she was not only oblivious to the proximity of the camera, but seemingly of her own surroundings. An earnest Chicano farm worker appears equally unguarded in Morrie Camhi’s Young Man with Union Brochure (1972)―never possibly knowing that his youth profile would intrigue viewers generations later.
Face to Face: Artist Views Artist: At the time that many of the artist’s portraits in the exhibition were created, the artists were far better known than the photographer who captured their likenesses. Thus, one senses in some of these powerful images a shift in control from portraitist to subject; in others an equality or complicity between the two. The artist aligns himself behind one of his signature flag paintings in Dan Budnick’s Portrait of Jasper Johns at Leo Castelli’s Gallery (1958), while Lola Alvarez captures a Portrait of Frida Kahlo (1944)―an instance when the subject most surely chose to be portrayed in a mirror, reflective of her own self-portraiture work.
Primal Face: Animal Portraits: Faces predate human beings and facial expressions have evolved in order to communicate emotional attitudes. What's on the face of an animal may be all too human. The sentient bearing captured in many animal portraits belies the primal nature of the beast, and viewers are free to interpret or anthropomorphize the subject according to one's own frame of mind. One has only to look at the haughty expression on William Heick’s Mrs. Zellerbach’s Poodle (1946) to know that animals convey attitude, if not emotion. A circus llama seems to be a more willing participant in Inge Morath’s Encounter on Times Square, New York (1957), sticking its head out of a car window as if to strike a pose.
Other sections include Written All Over One’s Face: The Documentary Portrait; In the Face Of: Portraying Other Cultures; On the Face of It: The Photographer’s Family and Friends; and Making Faces: Constructed Portraits.
This exhibition is made possible with the generosity of Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree.
Portrait Studio Sundays on the Front Steps
Sunday, June 10, 1:30 – 4:30 pm
June 10: Pooch Portrait Studio
The community (human and canine) is invited to pose for a free portrait on the Museum’s front steps as we celebrate the art of portrait photography. Participants receive a printout of their photo and can create a personalized frame with help from Museum Teaching artists.
Location: Santa Barbara Museum of Art/Front Steps
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a privately funded, not-for-profit institution that presents internationally recognized collections and exhibitions and a broad array of cultural and educational activities as well as travel opportunities around the world.