The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I’ve just come back from seeing Alias Man Ray, an exhibition that opened recently at The Jewish Museum in New York. Man Ray produced work in several media—paintings, photographs, cinema, sculpture—and throughout his career used his art to describe and promote himself as an artist. His even titled his autobiography, Self-Portrait. So I am really interested to read Preminda Jacob’s click! piece about the theatricality of Indian studio photographs, and the fantasies they fulfill and how, in turn, these portraits have influenced the idealized ways celebrities are represented in hand-painted cinema advertisements. Photographs of works of art constitute one of the most seductive of photography’s subjects, perhaps because we enjoy the conceit of photography and art being framed together in such an efficient package. From photography’s beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, the thrill was twofold: paintings were cast into the mirror to make new pictures that could be reflected on in new ways. “Here is a discovery launched upon the world that must make a revolution in art” announced one writer in 1839. “In what way, in what degree, will art be affected by it? If art was of two kinds, the imaginative and the imitative, would photography be able to practice each simultaneously?” In some cases photography has been called on for documentary purposes to make faithful copies of paintings and sculptures for practical reasons, from illustrating catalogues, to filing insurance and tax forms. For more than half of the twentieth century the New York firm of Peter A. Juley & Son photographed the artwork of leading American artists, especially works of art produced by members of the Ashcan School, Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, and George Bellows.
Artist studio portraits and artists at work portraits are even more fun. The Archives of American Art has thousands of these portraits. Liza Kirwin, Archives curator of manuscripts, writes that these photographs, “help define an artistic persona,” and at times, “promote a new image of the art and the artist.” In other words, the clothes, the pose, and the objects at hand define the artist, but also tell us what we should be thinking about the art. Artists who pose in their studio surrounded by their work suggest not only that they’ve been busy, but the photograph becomes in itself a retrospective exhibit of their work. Other studios suggest the appropriate context to think about the creative process; some studios are elegant great rooms, others seem to be untidy closets. Some seem to be in a warehouse, others look as though they are the back bedroom. Some portraits of artists, like the 1942 photograph of Blanche Lazzell’s Provincetown studio, don’t picture the artist at all, but let the artwork, layer upon layer of it flattened by the photographic eye, altogether stand in for the artist.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
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