In 1839, Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype and Henry Fox Talbot’s successful experiments with the calotype process changed the world of portraiture forever. No longer committed to the expense of a painted portrait, patrons could have their picture taken by a photographer for much less money and inconvenience. And while Daguerre’s process permitted only a single image, the calotype, when refined by the wet collodion process in the 1850s, allowed the negative to be printed repeatedly, thus producing a multiple that could be distributed more widely.
Certainly one of the most popular uses of early photography was to create portraits that could be given to family and friends. During the medium’s nascent period, having one’s photograph taken would be a rare event, perhaps occurring only once or twice in a lifetime. Such occasions were usually commemorative—a wedding portrait, a newborn child, or a son in uniform, before going off to war—and these images would be treasured by the owners.
While the occasions celebrated by photographic images are today much the same, the ease with which these images can be taken has changed dramatically. Thanks to the invention and marketing of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, photography was available to a much larger audience, providing them with the means to take pictures inexpensively, a radical step forward in the history of photography comparable to today’s transition to digital processes.
With the popularity of the “Street Photography” of the 1950s, so called because the subjects were not posed and appeared naturally, though not always flatteringly, the idea of the “portrait” took on a different meaning. This was connected to the burgeoning field of photojournalism, in which captured subjects were presented as they were found, not glorified or “fixed” in the process of printing.
This exhibition presents a few of the artists who have been active in the area of portrait photography since the 1960s: Danny Lyon, Larry Fink, Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Nikki Lee, Lauren Greenfield, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. While their unsentimental approach to their subject is similar, their varied results cannot be easily categorized, as this surprising array of responses testifies.
Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs