A Gathering of Portraits
Face a group of portraits and you find yourself engaged in a play of looks. A gathering of photographs in Galaxy, BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder’s personal selection of works from the museum’s collection, includes the viewer in a conversation of glances exchanged through the camera lens, creating connections across geography and time. Made with varied motivations—to capture the characteristics of a culture or the spirit of an individual, to celebrate or ridicule, to create an archival document or the visual equivalent of an embrace—these images offer glimpses of personality and history beyond the artists’ intentions. Viewed through the filter of the years, the photographic evidence accrues new meanings, even as old ones fade away.
Francis Frith (1822–98) was a successful English grocer who became even more successful as a travel photographer. His widely disseminated images of Egypt and Palestine promised nineteenth-century Britons vicarious experiences of distant locales, tapping into romantic notions of the mysterious East. Although it was best known for images of faraway monuments, Frith’s company also published pictures of people, including the images from India on view in Gallery 5. A photograph whose sitters are identified as Jehan Begum, the female ruler of the state of Bhopal, and her daughter bridges the functions of anthropological document and official portrait. A blank backdrop draws attention to the subjects’ elaborate embroidered costumes, but the camera also registers the delicate gesture of the older woman touching her daughter’s shoulder and the solemn gaze of the young girl, who would succeed her mother as leader of Bhopal.
While images like Frith’s fed an appetite for the exotic, August Sander (1876–1964) applied the ethnographic impulse to his own environment: twentieth-century Germany. His ambition for the decades-long project Citizens of the Twentieth Century was to “project an image of our time with absolute fidelity to nature.” In creating a photographic catalog of German social and physical types, he wrote, “it is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people, but to create a piece of history with my pictures.” His Man with a Pipe depicts a weathered fellow standing in a flagstone courtyard. Elements of the man’s attire—round hat, double-breasted vest, short jacket, long pipe—would have been markers of his social station; to a twenty-first-century American viewer, though, many of their connotations are obscure. In the absence of external reference points, we are left with a portrait of an individual that is rich in character and visual detail but imprecise in social context.
A near neighbor in the gallery to Sander’s anonymous subject is Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, photographed in 1865 by Etienne Carjat (1828–1906). Carjat’s image of Dumas hints at the photographer’s parallel career as a caricaturist: frontal framing emphasizes the writer’s bulk, while a faint halo surrounds the great tuft of gray hair bristling from his dome. The tension between portraiture and parody is also evident in Paris 1959 by Elliott Erwitt (b. 1928), a photographer with a famous eye for incongruity. Erwitt snaps a group standing on a park bench, their broad smiles and hammy gestures counteracted by the dour glare of the matron seated in front of them.
Celebrated for her portraits of drag queens, addicts, and other downtown denizens, Nan Goldin (b. 1953) built her career chronicling underground cultures. But her work is more intimate diary than ethnography, emphasizing the participant in “participant-observer.” Coarse-grained and casual but with a composition that echoes classical portraits, David at Grove Street, Boston, 1972 is one of Goldin’s many photographs of her longtime friend David Armstrong. Armstrong later wrote about Goldin’s images of the people she met at The Other Side, a Boston bar: “Nan worshipped the queens and it showed in the pictures.” Hand on hip, Armstrong addresses the camera’s worshipful gaze with a look of mutual knowledge.
These photographs form only one of many illuminating combinations that constitute Galaxy. The expansive exhibition, which includes works in a wide variety of media, is on view in Galleries 4, 5, and 6 through the summer. Consider this an invitation to wander, look, discover, and chart your own lines between points of brilliance.