I love photographic portraits. LOVE. But as a former gallerist and as someone who is all about getting new people to buy art and become collectors, I know that for the most part, portraits are not an entry-level collecting choice. Most people do not want a picture - especially a realistic photograph - of someone they don’t know hanging on their wall.

That being said, I own a lot of portraits. Sure, my husband has politely suggested I move all of the especially creepy ones to my office, but I love them all. So when I had the opportunity to co-curate an exhibition recently, I went for the faces.

As far as scholarship goes, I had not given a lot of thought to what draws me to portraits, or even how they fit in with art and photography in general. But as luck would have it, I was asked to write a curatorial statement that at least sounded like I had explored those issues, so boom - it’s Scholarship Tuesday.

This is what I came up with - 

Curatorial statement for the exhibition, Making Muses:

Anyone can photograph a person, but it takes a special gift to create a portrait. Most don’t even try. It takes guts to engage with and confront a subject and even more guts to take what you see and turn it into your reflection. 

Photographic portraits conflate the motivations and desires of the photographer and sitter into a complex output for the viewer to wrestle. In the final phase of engagement, the photographer is removed, and the sitter faces the spectator, alone and together, known and unknown. The response can be tender, charged, vulnerable, sensual, uncomfortable – these tensions and contrasts are what make portraiture so compelling. 

A muse is a person or a personified force that acts as the source of creative inspiration for an artist. In an active form, to muse means to consider something thoughtfully and often inconclusively. The title Making Muses refers to the photographic subject but also to the ambiguous engagement between the photographer, sitter and audience of a photographic portrait. 

One segment of photographers in this exhibition photograph immediate family members and close friends as a way to anchor themselves to a specific place and explore the meaning of home. Rachael Banks’ intimate portraits extract the beauty of her hometown, its people, her people, and allow her to take them with her when she goes. Aaron Blum uses portraiture to capture the magic of his native Appalachia and explore what it means to be Appalachian. Nathan Pearce left the small Midwest town where he grew up and then returned. His photographs explore how those close to him changed but also stayed the same. 

Another segment of images show how portraiture allows a photographer to explore his or her own identity and self-concept. Liz Arenberg looks at her own anxieties and body image by turning an envious and critical camera eye on her sister. Kurt Simonson photographs his close, male friends to explore his desire and longing for intimacy in friendships between men in the face of cultural expectations. 

Making Muses also shows how a charged moment between strangers can spark a deeper exploration of a subject, like in Matthew Conboy’s portrait of Elijah, a skater in an anarchist commune. In contrast, a long-term photographer-subject relationship can create an intimacy that allows for vulnerability in front of the camera, like in Honey Lazar’s portrait of Tanya, her subject for over eight years. 

In each of the photographs in Making Muses, we, the audience, are thrust into a complex interpersonal encounter, where the photographer and subject are strangers to us, familiar to each other. Suddenly, we are a witness to this private affair, asked to engage, to think, to feel.

So. . .

What do you think of photographic portraits? Share your scholarship, or just your opinion.