Photography and Identity in the Last 100 Years: Alfred Stieglitz and the Art of Portrait


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The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. explores how the practice of making multiple portraits of the same subjects produced some of  revealing and provocative photographs in "The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years," on view in the West Building's Ground Floor photography galleries through December 31, 2012.

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.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Steiglitz

"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."

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Trellis Fund.

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."

Emmet Gowin Edith, Danville, Virginia, 1963Along with Stieglitz, some of the 20th century's most prominent photographers—Paul Strand, Harry Callahan, and Emmet Gowin (1963 photograph pictured at left)—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 (Self-Portrait with Leica, below), Lee Friedlander, and Francesca Woodman have created inventive but elusive images that hint at the instability of self-representation.

Ilse Bing Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931

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.

Visit your local library for more resources.

Georgia O'Keeffe, a portrait
Alfred Stieglitz; Metropolitan Museum of Art, (1978).

Beyond a portrait : photographs
Dorothy Norman; Alfred Stieglitz; Alfred Stieglitz Center, (1984).

Ilse Bing : photography through the looking glass
Larisa Dryansky; Edwynn Houk, (2006).

Self portrait
Lee Friedlander, (1970).

Self portrait : photographs by Lee Friedlander
Lee Friedlander; John Szarkowski; Museum of Modern Art, (2005).

The theatre of the face : portrait photography since 1900
Max Kozloff, (2007).

Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand : masterworks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alfred Stieglitz; Edward Steichen; Paul Strand; Malcolm R Daniel; Metropolitan Museum of Art, (2010).

Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum
Alfred Stieglitz and Weston Naef (1995)
It’s hard to imagine what another book about Stieglitz, the most written-about figure in American photography, could contribute. Well, this one offers some unfamiliar images and, more notably, an essay arguing that Stieglitz did his best work late in life at his family retreat at Lake George, New York. Photographic curator and historian John Szarkowski is responsible for the latter, which advances a Stieglitz who in the late work turned from public themes and public life to personal symbols (clouds and dying poplar trees) and to sweetly human descriptions of friends, young women, and, of course, his fascinating wife, Georgia O’Keeffe.—Excerpt of review by Gretchen Garner first published February 1, 1996 (Booklist).

Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, (2004).
After a decade of research, first-time biographer ...Drohojowska-Philp reveals the strife that drove the artist’s cash-poor family from its farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to unhappy sojourns in the South, and discloses O’Keeffe’s frustrations over the repeated interruptions to her education, her misery while working as a commercial artist, her transcendent experiences in rural Texas, and her arrival in New York while ill and destitute. Rescued by photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe quickly became one of the country’s most successful artists, supporting them both. But as Drohojowska-Philp so empathetically reveals, O’Keeffe was not only offended by Stieglitz’s presentation of her as a sensual intuitive (an impression bolstered by his famously intimate photographs) rather than an intelligent, purposeful, and gifted artist, she was also traumatized by his infidelity. O’Keeffe lived a long, adventurous, and profoundly productive life, and Drohojowska-Philp charts her triumphs over adversity in an involving, revelatory biography that attains the grand scope and depth her subject deserves. — Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published September 1, 2004 (Booklist).

O’Keeffe: The Life of an American Legend
Jeffrey Hogrefe,  (1992).
Hogrefe’s exacting portrait of the doyenne of American painting is not the first in-depth biography of Georgia O’Keeffe and certainly will not be the last. Just as O’Keeffe looks subtly different in each of the erotically charged photographs taken by her mentor, husband, manager, and sometime burden, Alfred Stieglitz, each successive biography exposes a different aspect of her famously complex, contrary, evasive, and one-of-a-kind personality. Hogrefe has tried to answer the question, “How did a mad schoolteacher from the Texas Panhandle become the best-known American woman artist of the century?” (Reviewed July 1992)—Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published July, 1992 (Booklist).


Image credits:
All images are copyrighted.

1. Article illustration:
Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O'Keeffe, probably 1918
platinum print
18.4 x 23.1 cm (7 1/4 x 9 1/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection
2. Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O'Keeffe, 1930
gelatin silver print
23.9 x 19.1 cm (9 7/16 x 7 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection

3. Emmet Gowin
Edith, Danville, Virginia, 1963
gelatin silver print, printed 1980s
19.7 x 12.7 cm (7 3/4 x 5 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Charina Endowment Fund
© Emmet and Edith Gowin
Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

4. Ilse Bing
Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931
gelatin silver print, printed c. 1988
26.7 x 29.7 cm (10 1/2 x 11 11/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Ilse Bing Wolff
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