Portraiture Now: Feature Photography

Photography
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Editorial Review

Portrait of the Artist as Hired Gun

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

Famous faces are the bread and butter of the National Portrait Gallery. That's why its wall labels give top billing to the subjects of the pictures and not to the artists who made them. "Portraiture Now: Feature Photography" turns that on its head.

Oh, there are celebrities: actor Forest Whitaker; President-elect Barack Obama; musician Morrissey. But the real rock stars are the photographers who shot them.

None is an Annie Leibovitz, but they're in this show because they're well known, at least by art-world standards, and not necessarily because they took pictures of people who are. In some galleries, you won't recognize a soul.

See, all six photographers (Katy Grannan, Jocelyn Lee, Ryan McGinley, Steve Pyke, Martin Schoeller and Alec Soth) are fine-art fixtures who have crossed over to become hired guns, taking assignments for magazines and newspapers, from the mainstream (Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times) to the fringe (UOVO, anyone?). Even, in Lee's case, working on an advertising campaign for a rug designer. That last category makes for an oddly compelling pair of pictures, because the floor coverings in them are as central as -- in fact, more central than -- the anonymous people who are their ostensible subjects.

As previous shows in the "Portraiture Now" series have done, "Feature Photography" questions hidebound notions of portraiture, gleefully blurring -- and at times erasing -- the line between highbrow and popular, and between art and commerce.