A History of Portraiture in Photography – Lecture / Exhibition / Catalogue

Lorraine Anne Davis, Curator

What longing does a portrait answer?    

The recording of likenesses has been integral to the preservation of mankind’s short history on earth. Great men and women have found their faces etched onto money, chiseled into marble, poured in bronze, and applied to canvas. However, since the advent of photography, portraiture has become democratic, doing away with a class system that separated those who could afford to have their portraits done, from those who have long faded into a faceless past.

Thanks to Kodak, The Anonymous now have a face. It would be nearly impossible to find a person in the western world who has not been photographed at least once. Does this overwhelming sea of faces intensify our own feelings of anonymity or are we comforted by ‘safety in numbers’? Do the anonymous photographic portraits we see floating in boxes at the flea markets confront us with our own mortality? Or are we assured by our eventual place among them contributing to the nameless community of mankind?

Edward Steichen, in his ‘Family of Man’ exhibition of 1955, knew how particular portraits could evoke a collective familial recognition. He designed his landmark exhibition to capture the imagination and the heart of the crowds flocking to see the show in much the same way that personal photographs evoke personal memories. His intent was to unite man by presenting the world of the portrait as the world of the family. By carefully selecting and arranging the portraits he was able to touch our humanitarian sensibilities and give us, the viewers, a sense of belonging to the world of man. Only briefly did he look upon man’s dark-side.

Portraits of The Infamous touch us with a titillating fear much the same way a carnival ride scares us with a brush with the possibility of death. When we view images such as Jack the Ripper’s last victim in her bloodied bed, or stare at the vacant eyes of Dr. Harold Shipman, the British doctor who “euthanised” hundreds of his patients, we are horrified and fascinated at the same time. What feelings are evoked when we see the face of Charles Manson, now in his 60’s, applying for parole, next to the photograph of Sharon Tate, his victim, stopped forever in her youth? How can a murderer be a victim as well? What prevents us from being the murderer? or the victim?

Do images of The Famous reflect our longings for recognition and admiration? Do famous people seek to embrace immortality through their fame? Today, people seem obsessed with fame as though it would rescue them from their own seemingly empty existence. Is this obsession a result of being afraid of anonymity? With the population of the world exploding our ‘ignoble’ anonymity increases exponentially. It is as though we scramble for a photograph to affirm our existence. We may be convinced that fame and recognition will somehow make us happy. Yet when we see portraits of Michael Jackson, we know that fame does anything but affirm self-esteem. Who is not moved to pity by the photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s corpse taken at the morgue and particularly when contrasted with images of her at the height of her career? What do the mug shots of Hugh Grant and Divine Brown hold for us? What price immortality? Can the loss of anonymity be too high a price to pay?

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