Capturing the Soul: Photographic Portraiture Before the Smartphone Era

Capturing the Soul: Photographic Portraiture Before the Smartphone Era

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A recent smartphone ad shows two women looking at a photo of their children. “Did you bokeh my child?” one asks, referring to the blurred background photographers often use in portraits. Nervous but not terribly contrite, the second woman scrambles to adjust the depth of field. “See? Bokeh; unbokeh,” she says, sliding the f-stop back and forth. The advertisement is for depth control, a feature of portrait mode that lets some smartphones make portraits with shallow focus and fuzzy backgrounds.

But a new exhibit at the International Center of Photography shows that bokeh is hardly a good portrait’s greatest asset. The ad implies that anyone with the right smartphone can make a quality portrait, rendering a visit to a local photo studio obsolete. But, as is evident in the exhibit “Your Mirror: Portraits from the I.C.P. Collection,” there is a common motivation.

“Part of this was looking at how people have presented themselves and represented other people, throughout the history of photography,” said Erin Barnett, director of exhibitions and collections at ICP, who curated the show along with Claartje van Dijk. “Before the 19th century, only if you were rich and famous could you be painted. Then, thanks to photography, all different kinds of people could be photographed and represented, sometimes in ways they wanted to be represented, if you commissioned a photographer, but also sometimes in ways that they did not want to be represented”

The portrait show, on view through the end of April, features a range of work from the museum’s own collection. The diversity of portraits can be seen in materials — there are daguerreotypes; tintypes; cartes de visite, or small prints mounted on cards that could be mailed; lithographs; even F.B.I. wanted posters — and in content. Some photographs don’t involve faces at all; others are entire scenes.

The exhibit is arranged by category: family, labor, war, social change, celebrity (including a carte de visite of Sojourner Truth), self-presentation, identification, self-portraiture and appropriation, which includes Carrie Mae Weems’s appropriated photos of enslaved people.

Since family photographs are such a big part of photographic history — from momento mori to department store portraits — the museum focused on the rituals surrounding the images. For the former category, the curators chose a controversial AIDS campaign by Benetton, which featured a photo of a dying man, and a 1960s photo of a Texas family surrounding a coffin that was sent to those who were unable to attend.

The labor section has more group photographs, including a tintype of bell ringers. At a first glance, another photograph of a butcher looks like the work of August Sander, whose opus was an ambitious catalog of German portraits by type, from beggars to draftsmen and intellectuals. But further inspection reveals that it’s a tintype from 1875, one year before Sander’s birth, and it’s not exactly an environmental portrait.

“This was looking at how you could be proud of your job and want to have yourself reproduced in that way,” said Ms. Barnett.

In social change, there is a Gordon Parks photograph of 12-year-old Flavio da Silva, taken near Rio de Janeiro for Life magazine in 1961. The asthmatic child cared for his seven siblings while his parents scrambled to make money. Life’s readers responded to the published photo with an outpouring of financial help, which allowed the family to move into a better home. The child was also able to receive treatment for his asthma, which was chronicled in a second photo essay by Parks. Other photos in social change include Donna Ferrato’s portrait of an abused woman who claimed her boyfriend treated her “like a goddess” — until he beat her up and was jailed. Ms. Ferrato famously made a series on domestic violence, inspiring change and offering support to victims

As Ms. Barnett describes, self-portraiture is the ultimate symbol of control, and the show has more formal works by Samuel Fosso, Edward Steichen, Cindy Sherman (who does not usually categorize her work as self-portraiture) and a homage to her by Yasumasa Morimura. But there is also Sheng Qi’s “Memories (Me), 2000” whose origins lie in China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. After soldiers shot protesters in the square, the then 24-year-old artist cut off his finger, buried it in a flower pot and moved to Europe. The act was both performance and protest. Years later, when he moved back to Beijing for a short while, he began integrating his four-fingered hand into his work.

The war section has everything from a 1939 photo of a former member of the Barcelona Philharmonic at an internment camp for Spanish refugees to a Holocaust victim, and Susan Meiselas’s 1979 photograph of Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters in Nicaragua. Marc Riboud’s “Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration, Washington” from 1967, famously shows a woman holding a flower facing a line of National Guardsman.

Most of the photograph is in focus.

“I think a lot of the pictures that we picked are important because they were not in portrait mode,” said Ms. Barnett. “You can see the background, the antithesis of portrait mode. That background is, or can be really important.”

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