How do you define portraiture today?
It’s a question posed by the exhibition About Face: Contemporary Portraiture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – and one explored by the nearly 40 photographers whose images are on display on the gallery walls. An online exhibition Making Pictures of People, keeps the conversation going outside the museum walls.
Engaging with pictures in a new way
Inside the Bloch Building, two flat screens are placed, almost back to back, in the middle of a room lined with framed photographs. Visitors can scroll through dozens of photos with a touch of a finger.
"The exciting thing about a project like this – you can see it anywhere in the world. You can see it any time you want to," says Andy Adams of FlakPhoto, an online art space and digital photo publication. "You can engage with these pictures in a different way."
Adams curated the online exhibition called Making Pictures of People and says it's envisioned as a companion to the Nelson's exhibition About Face: Contemporary Portraiture.
"What I’m interested in is expanding the idea of what a photographic experience can be," he says. "And recognizing and really advocating for the fact that the screen and an image is as relevant and valuable an experience on the wall."
Portraits, some of strangers
Adams, who’s run FlakPhoto for nearly a decade, put out a call for submissions, and received more than 10,000. Twenty-seven artists were selected, and some have been working on projects for the last decade, like Richard Renaldi and his series called Touching Strangers.
"The whole idea is putting two people together in a portrait where they don’t know each other," explains Adams. "And positioning them in such a way where they are touching each other, which is an experiment which is an intimate one, and one you usually have with someone you have a deeper personal connection with."
""What does it mean to be an online curator versus a museum curator?" asks associate curator of photography April Watson, who co-curated the About Face exhibition with associate curator Jane Aspinwall. "It seemed to be a really fascinating question and so that really prompted that kind of collaboration with him."
Contemporary portraits examining challenging issues
The photographs in both exhibitions have been produced since 2000. In About Face, there are works exploring issues of gender, identity, and race, such as the haunting work by South African artist Pieter Hugo.
"He’s altering the color channels," says Watson. "The effect is that it brings out those kinds of blemishes on the skin. The eyes become these eerie-looking orbs. It's a very arresting picture of this woman.
"But I think the reason he is altering the skin: she seems like an Anglo female, but also her skin looks dark. So I think he's questioning ideas of race, of culture, of identity, whether that's a natural thing or a constructed thing. And, of course, given the history of South Africa and apartheid, it's very much a part of his culture."
Modern photographers looking to past processes
There are inkjet prints in the exhibition, but artists also are using some older techniques, such as the daguerreotype. And some combine old and new processes.
Associate curator Jane Aspinwall says one of the most popular forms of portraiture in the past was an occupational; a baker, for example, would be shown wearing a hat, with a loaf of bread.
"We also have this large panorama by Dylan Vitone, in which he’s showing a cobbler in his shoe shop," says Aspinwall. "Now, he’s using totally contemporary technology, not only digital and stitching together multiple views in Photoshop, but it speaks very much to this 19th century notion of the occupational."
Artists from around the world - and Kansas City
There’s a global reach to the About Face exhibition – with artists from South Africa, Europe, and the United States.
"If there’s one commonality to all of these images, which are very diverse, it is that a portrait exists somewhere between the subject and the photographer," says Watson.
"It's at the interaction between them, how close they get, how distanced they keep themselves, whether they are very familiar to the photographer, whether they are complete strangers. The portrait occurs in that interchange somehow."
Four artists in the exhibition have ties to the region, including photographer Philip Heying, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo. and is now based in Lawrence, Kan.
Taking portraits in a "particular moment"
In 2001, Heying was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., working for another photographer with a studio, just blocks from the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, he says he overslept, and woke with a start.
"And I ran into the living room to get the coffee going. I turned around to look out the window and the North Tower was on fire. I thought it was probably an electric fire or something, and I'd hear about it on the news later," he recalls. "Then my coffee started boiling, and I turned around to turn off the stove, and saw the second plane hit and saw the fireball. And I knew that was wrong."
After seeing a steady stream of people leaving Manhattan and crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, Heying says he felt a “need to do something affirmative.” He grabbed his camera, with his last two rolls of film, and met people as they crossed into Brooklyn.
"I just intuitively decided to try to make as many pictures of as many people as I could with those two rolls of film," says Heying. "I just had to get what was right there, right then at that particular moment."
Four of these September 11th portraits from the series called Witnesses, September 11, 2001, are in the exhibition.
And as for defining portraiture and its appeal, Heying says perhaps it helps us understand who we are – and seeing something of ourselves in the work can make us feel less alone.
Andy Adams of FlakPhoto, and associate curators Jane Aspinwall and April Watson, talk about the future of photography at 6 p.m. on September 12 in Atkins Auditorium.
The exhibition, About Face: Contemporary Portraiture, runs through January 9, 2014 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-751-1278.