Candice Bergen’s recent essay for click! talks about a time in her life when thinking about what it meant to be a photographer changed her life. Here is someone who has contemplated the world from both sides of the camera. A celebrity and the child of a celebrity, she has had her photograph made thousands of times, and she has become a photographer, and she has acted in the role of a photographer. Hers is a very unique perspective that Albert S. Southworth one of the earliest and greatest of American photographers would have envied and respected: “Expression is everything,” he wrote in 1854. And above all he councils anyone contemplating a photograph to, “Trust the Art,” and I suspect this advice was meant both for the photographer and the sitter.
Early commentaries about the nature of photography are full of speculation about the unique capabilities of photography to capture likeness. The words “soul,” and “sympathy,” and “unity” show up a lot. Mostly they convey the demands of a modern requirement, arguably introduced by photography, to distinguish between the act of observing and the ability to see. Artist and photographer Rembrandt Peale, one of Southworth’s contemporaries, thought that photography’s audience underestimated what he called “the wonderful power” of photographic truth.
Nearly a century later Man Ray, an artist of prodigious talents in many media, also believed a great deal in the ability of photography to combine the eye and mind into a powerful image. Throughout his life he made many self portraits and his emphasis on himself as a subject suggests that he was always configuring and re-configuring himself in order to provide his audience with a portrait of an artist. Like Southworth and Peale, Man Ray explored the dimensions of photography with a thought to both making and viewing images. The powerful question of “what kind of art is it,” seems to have been answered by images that could be simultaneous expressions of maker, subject, and viewer. Today the culture of images demands that we speak with a visual literacy beyond any scale imagined by the first photographers. The issues of soul and sympathy continue to intrigue us. Our ability to unite observation with truth has been tempered by more images and more profound critical commentary. The Smithsonian photography collections hold millions of portrait images, some of them accompanied with the names of the sitters, some more famous than others, some of them that for now remain anonymous faces by unknown photographers. What now can we make of these faces, what expression filters back from us to them?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.