Photographs are an interesting thing: since their debut in the middle of the 19th century, they’ve promised the perfect vision of the world, entirely truthful and unaffected by human biases. Yet we have always tried to manipulate this medium to present ourselves in certain ways, to present a certain vision of the world. This is the premise of “Malleable Likeness and the Photographic Portrait,” a new exhibit at the Smart Museum. Developed by Michael Tymkiw, a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Chicago, along with the Smart Museum, the exhibit features rare works from private collections. Though it’s small, the exhibit’s drive is clear and its scope spans centuries.
The first work presented is a set of negatives from an 1860s photo shoot, which closely resemble the shots from mall instant photo booths. It’s fitting, since the 19th-century negatives were taken for a similar purpose: specifically for calling cards, with the distributor asserting his or her social status by choice of pose or props. However, the small size of the show means each work functions as a signifier for a broader trend. Fully embodying Oliver Wendell Holmes’s epigrammatic description of photography as a “mirror with a memory,” these early images are mostly portraits. Nevertheless, the oldest samples in the show, including an early sitting room portrait by the 19th-century French cartoonist, photographer, and technophile Nadar and another by the pioneering female photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, are perhaps the most intriguing works in the exhibit. Rarely seen in public, the directness of these shots’ representation imbues them with a kind of historical meaning that art for art’s sake can never create.
However, the whole show soon jumps from 19th-century mimicry to 20th-century avant-garde: Tristan Tzara sitting among subtly inserted Dadaist symbols as captured by Man Ray, and Felix Man’s starkly monumental portrait of the German printmaker Max Lieber stand out, among other works. The highlights of the show, however, are works by lesser-known artists. August Sander’s “Triple Self-Portrait” and Berenice Abbott’s “Self-Portrait” get at the soul of the subject and their environment. In the former, overlapping images of Sander’s head let us glimpse his creative confusion. In addition to establishing character, the artists in the exhibit are able to convey emotion. “Women with Hydrangea” creates a raw and horrific image of grief.
Ultimately, “Malleable Likeness and the Photographic Portrait” makes a point about stylistic progression as a marker of the medium’s transformation. Some of the more traditional 19th-century portraits stick out as illustrating a rather different point than the more consciously artistic shots that makes up the exhibit. It does mark the transition between simple portraiture and creative variations on the reproduction of nature, but the analogy does not fit like a glove, due to the aesthetic gap between 19th-century and artistic works.
Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through August 30. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10am-4pm, Thursday, 10am-8pm, weekends 11am-5pm. (773)702-0200. Free. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu