Who Are We? Identity and the Contemporary Photographic Portrait

September 11 – December 7, 2017

Andres Serrano (American b. 1950)
“Jewel-Joy Stevens, America’s Little Yankee Miss,”
2003 Digital chromogenic print 24″ x 20″
Gift of Melissa and Scott Tannen, BA ’99 Courtesy Andres Serrano

The photographic portrait, with its roots in early nineteenth-century France, has continually challenged how we view ourselves. The actual practice has become increasingly fluid over time and almost as difficult to grasp as the nature of identity itself. These portraits, in their early form, insisted on their realism, a mirror within the context of traditional painting. As Susan Sontag observed in her seminal collection of essays on photography, “photographs furnish evidence.”*

The contemporary photographic portrait, as explored in this exhibition, is diverse, yet tends to incorporate a common thread: the desire to say something about us as people. Some artists approach the medium as a means to tell a larger story, as seen in two portraits by Shirin Neshat that she made in response to the Arab Spring and, specifically, to the harsh reality of displacement. Other artists featured, such as Andres Serrano, use the photographic portrait as a strategy to explore American identity. Still others, such as the photojournalist Donna Ferrato, use photography as an agent for social change, in this instance, her crusade against domestic violence. In Kiki Smith’s Las Animas, the artist mines the relationship between the representations of her body while alluding to what lies beneath.

Portraits, in all their diversity, serve the needs not only of the sitter and artist, but also the viewer. We look for clues in them to who we are as humans and the possibilities of what we could become—often trying out multiple identities, especially when on the cusp of adulthood. The reliance on photography in our own lives increasingly presents questions about representation and identity that artists continue to navigate in surprising ways. The first in a three-part series on portraiture, Who Are We? Identity and the Contemporary Photographic Portrait is organized by the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and curated by Joseph S. Mella, director, with support provided by The Ingram Commons and Leslie Cecil and Creighton Michael, M.A.’76.

* Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” On Photography, 1972 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 5.

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