Saturday, September 29, 2012

National Gallery’s ‘Serial Portrait’ show reveals more than faces

Nikki S. Lee, "The Hip Hop Project (2)" (2001)
Washington Post
September 29, 2012

One senses mortality throughout “The Serial Portrait: Photograph and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years.” The National Gallery of Art exhibition traces a practice mostly peculiar to photography: the creation of multiple images of the same person, often self-portraits, tracing changes in identity that occur naturally over time or through manipulation of self-expression. In the first room of the show, male photographers focus on the female form, often their wives or paramours, producing visual essays that inevitably track the effects of aging. In later rooms, the serial photography project grows more experimental, more a question of identity, manipulations of gender and class. But death is always around the corner.

Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” dominates an entire wall, and, although full of life, the work leaves one with a shudder. An ongoing project, this collection of 37 prints documents the photographer’s wife and her three sisters in photographs made each year since 1975. Displayed in a grid of four rows, the photographs offer without comment what seems a miracle: a sustained communion among four sisters over almost four decades. But the lowest row, only seven photographs long, is terrifying. Will it be completed? When will this group of four be a group of three, then two, then one? What is the end of this project?

There’s only one end, and it’s a certitude, of course. The Nixon series, presented with three missing photographs on the lowest row, projects death into the present, into the midst of life, reminding one of Roland Barthes’s observation: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

As you prepare to leave the exhibit, death returns in the form of an image that seems to be a giant reproduction of Robert Mapplethorpe’s last self-portrait, made a year before the photographer’s death from complications arising from AIDS in 1989.


Nicholas Nixon, "The Brown Sisters" (1975)
Gillian Wearing, "Me as Mapplethorpe" (2009)
Alfred Stieglitz, “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1918)
Milton Rogovin, "Samuel P. 'Pee Wee' West (Lower West Side series)" (1974)

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