Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 8, 2015
Face It: The Photographic Portrait
Exhibition schedule: Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, April 4–August 11, 2014
Charles H. Traub. Portrait: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1971). Gelatin silver print. 6 x 6 in. (15.2 x 15.2 cm). Norton Simon Museum, Museum Purchase through the Florence V. Burden Foundation, PH.1971.177. © Charles H. Traub.

Any time you have a chance to see a photography exhibition drawn from the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, take it. These shows are few and far between: the last one opened eight years ago, when curator Gloria Williams Sander acknowledged the full idiosyncratic range of the department with her remarkable exhibition, The Collectible Moment (2006–7). Even a small glimpse of the collection affords the rare chance for a trip to the 1960s and 1970s, the moment just before big business gripped Los Angeles culture by the throat. It was a time when the contemporary mandate for radical unconventionality could still shape museum structure and policy, a moment when, in art-historian Robert Sobieszek’s estimation, “Nothing was sacred; anything was possible” (The Collectible Moment: Photographs in the Norton Simon Museum, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006: 72). In California, already the symbolic center of the counterculture, art schools were opening and an approach to photography as a conceptual rather than commercial pursuit was invading university curricula. The Norton Simon was then still the Pasadena Art Museum, and, under the successive curatorships of Walter Hopps and John Coplans, was established as a vanguard exhibition space for historical and contemporary avant-garde work. (This is where, along with other notable events, Eve Babitz stripped down for a game of chess with Marcel Duchamp.)

Photography was poised at the edge of recognition as a major art practice, but had yet to be noticed by the art market. This history probably explains why the Pasadena Art Museum’s self-appointed curator of works on paper, Fred Parker, was able to found the photography department at all. On a shoestring budget over a span of only five years (1969–74), he amassed the bulk of what is now the Norton Simon collection of photographs, mainly by soliciting donations from emerging artists. Dominated by the spirit of intermedia experimentation characteristic of the time, the collection Parker pulled together is notable not only for its prescience in terms of famous names (Lewis Baltz, Henry Wessel, and Robert Heinecken are represented, and Parker was responsible for bringing Manuel Álvarez Bravo into the public eye), but for its extraordinary openness to a wide range of aesthetic positions, many of them anticipating postmodern strategies of mass-media appropriation, image/text combinations, and seriality. While traditional California photographers like Edward Weston and Minor White are represented in the collection with large portfolios, this early commitment to hybrid, experimental, and conceptual works is what makes the Norton Simon’s collection distinctive. It includes photographs that look like printmaking, collage, sculpture, and performance, images that are, as Garry Winogrand grumbled, “not even goddamn photography” (The Collectible Moment, 72).

Since 1974 the museum has primarily featured Norton Simon’s impressive personal collection, from which postwar and contemporary works are notably absent. Face It: The Photographic Portrait, curated by Sander and comprising only twenty images in one small room, appears to answer to the call of a more conventional muse than the one Parker followed; nevertheless, it provides glimpses of the expansion of photography’s visual language that informed the original collection. Somewhat counterintuitively, these flashes are possible because of the exhibition’s small size. The images are increasingly challenging as one circles the room and becomes aware that the anti-conventionality of Parker’s rogue collection dwells latent here, sublimated into the traditional genre of portraiture. The paradigm is itself photographic: the camera gathers in everything in spite of the operator’s focus, holding in its margins the details that only later, and only for the attentive viewer, burst disruptively into view.

The scene of inscription is what makes photographic portraiture distinct from portraiture in other mediums. The subject of the portrait is constantly present to the photographer during the process, and the image is immediately recorded, rather than interpreted over time. Photographs therefore bear the distinctive illusion of presence that, in Sander’s words, privileges them as “vivid surrogates for reality." But important, too, is the relationship of the sitter to the apparatus during this process. In photographic portraits we see the sitter reacting to a machine as if it is a person. The phantom figure projected by the sitter onto the apparatus could be the photographer behind the camera, but in this age of the “selfie,” I increasingly suspect that it is an imagined audience, the infinitely expanding public to whom the picture will be available. In spite of this universally experienced fact, the success of photographic portraits is routinely judged in direct proportion to their effacement of this effect. The goal is the generation of “affect”— achieved through the repression of both the apparatus and the operator—in favor of the illusion that the sitter communicates directly with the viewer, however diverse the subject’s historical and cultural contexts. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that leading-edge photography began to acknowledge the many modes through which the camera and the operator construct the final, naturalized image, and it did so by making photography’s manipulations obvious. Somewhat disappointingly, given the Norton Simon collection’s strength in this area, naturalized portraits predominate in Face It, primarily in the form of relatively straightforward photography from artists as varied as Minor White and Judy Dater. Yet peculiarities rub through, as exemplified by Keith Jacobshagen’s unsettling Penitentiary Inmate, Lincoln, Nebraska (1970), in which the gleaming black face of a prisoner is incongruously bleached by a daub of sunlight falling on his lips. Likewise Mark Power’s Erika (1969) strains at the limits of the genre, pushing portraiture toward a snapshot deskilling that conveys the “available light” priorities of the counterculture, even as the building behind his sitter dips and bows in response to Powers’ wide-angled lens—a homage to the instability and exhausted worldliness of Vietnam-era youth.

While the images in Face It do not quite challenge the genre to the extent that the collection could have allowed (it excludes, for example, Thomas Francis Barrow’s ethereal television photographs and Betty Hahn’s highly colored gum-bichromate prints), the extent of California artists’ defiance of the dominant standards for museum-quality photographs—established in the east by John Szarkowski during his tenure as the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art—is still on display. These acknowledgments of mechanical mediation erupt intermittently from among the more conventional images, most obviously with the inclusion of Robert Delford Brown’s Memorial Photo: Self-Portrait (early 1970s). In this messy, hand-colored photo-collage, a standard commercial portrait of a man in business attire has been fitted with a pair of extra eyes cut into his cheekbones in a manner that immediately destroys the illusion of presence—the portrait’s “reality effect.” Brown’s image is a recent acquisition (2010), a hopeful sign that the collection’s historical importance has been noted and may even be built upon in the future. Elsewhere, anarchy surfaces more subtly, with the inclusion of Lee Miller’s disorienting portrait Joseph Cornell with One of His Objects (1933) and in a surprising image by Imogen Cunningham, Warning (1970), which shows a man raising his hand in the eponymous gesture as he emerges from the shadows beneath a culvert-like concrete structure. Cunningham’s more familiar flower images are well represented in the Norton Simon, but this enigmatic composite photograph from the end of her life is distinctive, and speaks to the spirit of exchange and experimentation that characterized the student milieu in which she found herself at the time.

Perhaps the most compelling grouping of the show comes toward the end, with three images in which the sitter actively refuses to meet the camera’s gaze. A small, devastating portrait of the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1971) by Charles Traub depicts Meatyard flung in an attitude of desperation against a wall, his back to the viewer. The disturbing quality of the scene is heightened by Meatyard’s jacketed torso, which appears to be wrapped in a clear plastic sheath only visible where it catches the sunlight in diagonal streaks, veining the man’s back and echoing the cracked concrete backdrop. This is a portrait of the self given over to its physical bulk, the head effaced in order to amplify whatever it might be possible to communicate through sheer bodily gesture. The tension between surrender and refusal, enacted by the body of a man completely conversant with photographic processes, reads as a severe correction to the assumption that the face is the locus of communication and affect.

Mounted adjacent to this relatively tiny image is Judy Dater’s large photograph Looking Back, June Wayne (2006), a recent gift of the artist. Here again the subject has turned her back on the camera, displacing her visage onto a large, heavily decorated magnifying glass hung from a ribbon around her neck. The ornament, twisted to dangle like the Cyclops’s eye against the velvety black expanse of her back, allows us to see what the sitter cannot: not, as expected, the apparatus she has rejected, but rather the hectic reflection of tree branches. The image reads as an allegory of photography en abyme—the glass lens rhymes with the prosthetic camera lens, which itself imports the unforeseeable vagaries of nature into even the most carefully controlled scene. Dater’s piece is another testament to the ongoing importance of this collection’s founding commitments to unorthodox forms and processes.

What does it mean to refuse technology’s gaze? If this is portrayal, it seems that in the hands of these sophisticated operators, what is represented is more important than whom. The denaturalization of photography is responsible for raising these questions, and its role in the politics of representation is elegantly expressed in the last image in this group, Philippe Halsman’s Eleanor Roosevelt (1962)—the only portrait here of a very famous person, shot by a photographer of famous people. For the third time we see the subject shutting down viewer access, in this instance merely by closing her eyes. Roosevelt’s pose—her face close to the lens yet bowed and resting heavily on her hand—communicates the passive-aggressive turning inward of a figure resigned to public scrutiny. And with her closed expression, she points to the intrusive force of camera vision, probing and unwelcome, hinting at the inadequacy of the machine to the full and complex presentation of its subjects. Bringing the viewer to this realization is the bravest gesture possible for a show on photographic portraiture. It proves that a small collection exhibition in the hands of a skilled curator can have huge impact, particularly when the collection throbs with the signs of radical reinvention.

Susan Laxton
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of California, Riverside