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Photographers and Identity

March 22nd - June 19th, 2024

If you studied photography in school, at some point you were given a “self-portrait” assignment. Back in my college days, there was even the nude self-portrait - that probably gets a bit dicey these days. It’s interesting to think about this assignment and its relevance today. Before the ease of camera phones, it was fairly rare for the average Joe / Josette to take a self-portrait. You stood in awkward groups for family photos. You sat, draped and posed, for school photos. The most control you got was sitting in a cramped Photo Booth, trying to time the flashes. Otherwise, it was all very official and removed.


Los Alamos ID badge, Creative Commons

Hence the relevance of the self-portrait assignments - and for many of us, that was the first time we had complete control over the process. It was my first time using that exotic beast - the tripod - and figuring out that little spring timer on the camera. I don’t know that I really thought of how to go beyond what I looked like…but it felt like new territory. Then along comes the camera phone with its big screen and front-facing lens - and the world shifted. Now a whole generation has grown up having to brand themselves and their lives for the world to consume.  So, the impact of the self-portrait assignment has changed - but the relevance remains. The new task for students is learning to redefine the visual language of how they see themselves through the camera’s eye.


Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, The Broad, 2016,  Kehinde Wiley, The Obama Portraits Tour, LACMA, 2021

Exploring that rebranding of identity has been Cindy Sherman’s life’s work. She is probably one of the most well know contemporary artists working with the theme. Starting with her early work, Untitled Film Stills, she created shorthand versions of the types of women we saw in films of the 1950s and 60s. Painter Kehinde Wiley, working in the historic Old Masters tradition, creates visions of contemporary people of color with his luscious use of pattern and saturated colors. Chuck Close’s work is an interesting bridge between the two mediums - using photo-realism techniques to create massive painted portraits. Expanding our ideas about portraiture, Tom Keifer has staged personal items, seized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, from migrants and asylum seekers at the US / Mexico border - allowing us to connect with the stories behind each object.

With this showcase, I’ve chosen a wide range of interpretations of identity. Many of the artists are exploring the spaces between personal and cultural identity - how to balance what is within, with what is demanded from the outside world. Several have looked at trauma, personal and generational, and how it shapes their own identities. That trauma can also be reflected in the fear of losing identity through mental illness. We are also fortunate to have reviews from PhotoBook Journal, with selections from Gerhard Clausing, Douglas Stockdale and their team of contributing editors on books exploring this theme.

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