Work by Harry Callahan, who photographed his wife, Eleanor, frequently in the 1940s and ’50s, and by Callahan’s protege Emmet Gowin, whose wife, Edith, is seen in work from the 1960s until the present decade, feels more intimate, honest and respectful than Stieglitz’s. The Callahan images are bit too familiar at this moment, having appeared in a National Gallery retrospective of Callahan’s work less than a year ago. But the Gowin photographs are a delight, both playful and formally inventive. In two images, made four years apart, an older but still handsome Edith is seen dressed in black, wearing age proudly; nearby, an image made at night as moths swirled about her, seems to channel some immanent and preternatural youth, with Edith’s head surrounded by a halo of light.
The fundamental gloominess inherent in so many serial photographs may explain why later photographers have turned to other forms of seriality, other variations of the self to document. Milton Rogovin’s photographs of ordinary and often impoverished people focus on self-presentation, the difference between a man dressed for his grungy day job and a man seen at home, surrounded by the things that make him feel self-possessed, worldly and rich. Narrative inevitably creeps into serial photographs. Both Andre Kertesz’s photographs of his vibrantly youthful brother Jeno and Lee Friedlander’s photographs of himself feel a bit like film stills, without captions or storyboards to give them definite coherence.
More volatile and sometimes problematic are the postmodern games of identity that dominate much of the last two rooms in the exhibition. Nikki S. Lee’s impersonations of subcultural identity are slick and repellent, the worst sort of empty art game — her superficial dress-up as a skateboarder or yuppie is derivative and says nothing about the people whose identities she mimics. Vibeke Tandberg’s “Faces” series from 1998 is equally centered on the self, but it is far more meaningful and touching. Using digital techniques to morph her image with those of people who are important to her, Tandberg produced 12 closely related variations on herself, many of them enticingly androgynous. Yet the results, which invite the viewer to seek small variations — moles and crow’s feet and shadows of beard — are far less narcissistic than Lee’s work. Tandberg’s game with her image is ultimately about the powerful impact of tiny markers of identity, gender and race, the superficial clues with which we all too quickly sort people into categories. The number 12 also suggests a kind of musical project, equal tones, open to rearrangement and interpretation.
All of this leads to Wearing’s large-scale impersonation of Mapplethorpe, which confronts the departing viewer rather like one’s image in the mirror. The allure of the narcissistic gaze never goes away, somehow promising us insight into who we are. But it isn’t necessarily self-love that grips us. Rather, the face is the closest and most familiar physical thing through which we can seek basic information about life: about who we are, what we are feeling, how old we have become. It’s no wonder photographers have returned to it again and again, trusting it implicitly as a map of the self or doubting it, like Wearing and others, as merely a mask or a put-on. In the end, the face’s ambiguities are unresolved, its potential for meaning dissipated, leaving others, through photography, to read it or not, and likely to find just as little resolution to the mystery.
The Serial Portrait: Photography
and Identity in the
Last One Hundred Years
opens Sunday and is on view through Dec. 31 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215.