From the early portraits of the 19th century to the current phenomenon of the Facebook profile picture, people have used various methods of photography to satisfy their fascination with their own image. While most people are content to say their family portraits or 3x3 profile pictures represent who they really are, artists in the Smart Museum’s new exhibit, Malleable Likeness and the Photographic Portrait, beg to differ.
Incorporating innovative photographic techniques and various mediums, the artists featured in Malleable Likeness challenge the idea that a figure in a picture is an accurate portrayal of its real-life counterpart. Beauty and vanity certainly fall to the wayside as photographers dare to destroy their own photographic image to make a statement about the uncertainty of perception.
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz puts distance between the human face and the camera lens in his 1997 “Self Portrait.” To create this piece, Muniz delicately created a portrait of himself out of dirt, photographed the finished rendering, and then immediately erased it. He manages to create a surprisingly beautiful and realistic image of himself that clearly conveys his own sense of serenity. By photographing such short-lived renderings, Muniz’s strange “Self Portrait” questions the permanence the “self” portrayed in a photograph and further challenges the relationship of the camera to its subject.
Photographer Dieter Appelt also takes the self-portrait approach as he questions the temporal yet static element of photographic identity with his haunting and visceral “Self-Portrait.” Dieter blurs his image by moving right before the picture was taken. The blurred lines of his face, nose, and mouth distort many of his features and give an overall shocking quality to the photograph. Dieter’s open mouth exposes crooked teeth, and his angry expression conveys a sense of agitation highlighted by the blurred composition. By complicating his own image, Dieter suggests that his body can exist in more than one dimension and that the camera can fail to capture a person’s evolving character, something which he believes is crucial to identity.
While Dieter and Muniz challenge the idea of identity, artists like Elio Luxardo and Josef Breitenbach question the legitimacy of the reality portrayed in a photograph. In “F.T. Marinetti,” Luxardo layers multiple pictures of a man taken at different angles. Each image is placed in such a way that it is distinct yet also blends with the other pictures, emphasizing the fabricated nature of the photograph. Breitenbach employs a similar technique in “Graf Vittorio Cerruti and Wife, Paris.” He overlays an image of early 20th-century Italian ambassador Cerruti onto a picture of his wife, creating a distinct line between the two portraits that evokes a sense of uneasiness in the viewer. By manipulating reality in their pictures, both Luxardo and Breitenbach ask whether any photograph actually captures an uncontrived reality.
Along with such abstracted works present in Malleable Likeness, there are also many more common types of photography that give a sense of the progression of the art. Early photographs from the 1870s provide a brilliant visual for the types of copper and silver plates that were used to expose the film. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait, “Charles Hay Cameron,” exemplifies early photography with its grainy quality and copper tint from the copper plate exposure. For the past two centuries, photographers have employed a plethora of methods to examine and deconstruct the idea of the self-portrait, and today artists still seek to challenge the authority of the photographic lens. It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Malleable Likeness and the Photographic Portrait shows us that for some pictures, no amount of words is sufficient.