“A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound.” – Charles Baudelaire, 1859
Philadelphian Robert Cornelius produced the first photographic portrait in 1839. Using the daguerreotype process, which required a lengthy exposure, Cornelius remained motionless for more than a minute before his self-portrait was complete. Since that time, photography has supplanted painting and sculpture as the favored medium for portraiture. For much of the nineteenth century, portraiture remained the province of professional studio photographers but, in 1900, Kodak popularized the medium with its inexpensive and relatively simple Brownie camera. The Brownie became an instant sensation and led to widespread use by amateurs, a phenomenon comparable to the contemporary use of smartphone cameras, and snapshots of family and friends became an obvious application.
For professional photographers, the medium remained an aesthetically complicated and insightful investigation of personality and psychology. The portrait is a representation not only of appearance or countenance but also the complexity of human identity. This exhibition explores how photographers have examined individuality through portraiture and, in many cases, shaped the presentation of identity through pose, props, and lighting and compositional choices.
Although a variety of sitters are included in the exhibition, particular attention has been given to artists, celebrities, and other public figures, those personalities for whom physical presentation often carries special meaning. The photographs selected for this exhibition display a tacit awareness of the camera’s role in crafting public image.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.