Ever since Daguerre’s miraculously detailed renditions of faces first appeared in 1839, photography has been intimately tied to the notion of defining identity. We believe we can interpret character through expression, body language, and gesture. In this exhibition, compare the radiantly happy swimmer with the hypnotically staring man. Examine the slight pout and awkward stance of the girl with the ice pop or the berry-smeared face of the young boy. Their faces and bodies tell us who they are, or were, but just in that second when the shutter clicked.
Photographers trying to broaden characterization beyond a single slice of time turned to environmental portraiture, defining us by what we own, what we do, where we live. These were among the most prevalent ways to describe identity in the more than 1,000 images submitted to, and the 50 works selected for, the IDentity exhibition.
We live in a consumer society. See the young boy floating in the tub, enraptured by his abundance of bath toys. Contemplate the girl perching diffidently on the cusp of womanhood, surrounded by her childhood dolls and her teenage jewelry and Goth skull. One photographer sent a proxy rather than a self-portrait: a flowered curtain, cloth that hides rather than reveals, discloses her personal aesthetic taste and ethnic background.
Some photographers in this exhibition expand on the historical tradition of occupationals—images depicting workers with the tools of their trade or engaging in their vocation. Whether turkey farmer, casket maker, parking garage attendant, band of Indian musicians or housekeeper (we don’t know whether she is paid or unpaid), the subjects are represented in a dignified way that pays homage to their labor. There are a few surprising juxtapositions, such as the sheriff holding her daughter and the barber who hunts (and sometimes scalps his prey).
Surroundings can be as equally revealing. The exhibition contains images of two living rooms with, and one without, inhabitants; all three are vivid portraits. These rooms are spaces of ritual rather than daily life, meant to show off their owners’ good taste and material wealth. How different these sanitized spaces are from the cluttered kitchen and adjoining nook where a photographer’s mother dozes in her recliner before the television. Or from the car that temporarily serves as an outdoor living room for a man finishing his cigarette and fast food cola. Or the kitchen that symbolizes the domestic intimacy of a gay couple.
Community, be it geographical location or social group, is how some people differentiate themselves. A young man stands defiantly yet also defensively in the middle of a Detroit street, while behind him children cavort in the exuberant spray of an open fire hydrant. Men and children hanging out on a Chinatown sidewalk stand in a grouping almost as dense as the urban fabric that surrounds them. Family relationships pigeonhole sitters – as mother and child, sibling, or partner/spouse—yet the individual faces, poses, and bodies tell us about the people behind these stereotypes. The artists in this exhibition who explore gender identity emphasize the ambiguity of socially defined boundaries.
Almost all of the photographers who submitted work to IDentity chose to turn their camera on others. Wherever the lens is pointing, each photograph reflects the interests, visual aesthetic, and world-view of its creator. In trying to identify others, we reveal ourselves.
August 21, 2013