“My husband asked, ‘How is this even a portrait?’ ” says Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, as we sit and watch “Buffalo Milk Yogurt,” a short film by Jennifer Levonian about a hipster’s meltdown in a Whole Foods-like supermarket. “And I told him, ‘It’s about this guy, on this day. Like any portrait.’ ”

“Buffalo Milk Yogurt” is one of the works on display as part of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013, a biannual exhibition that nets the winner $25,000 and a commission to create a portrait that will be added to the museum’s permanent collection. The only rules: The artist must be older than 18, live and work in the U.S., and have had direct contact with the subject (so no snapping pictures of random people).

What results is an exhibit that expands the very nature of portraiture — you’ve got your paintings and photographs, sure, but some of the works involve materials like rice and glitter, and digital and video media are also represented. In fact, this year’s winner is Bo Gehring, for his video “Jessica Wickham,” in which the camera slowly scans up a woman’s body while classical composer Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” plays.

“He sets up the camera closer to his subject than the human eye can focus,” says Moss, who also is the competition’s director. “So, you see in the work something you literally can’t see with your eye.” The result straddles the line between appreciative and invasive.

You Vote!

If you disagree with the judges’ choices for the winners, you can vote for the People’s Choice Award via the NPG’s iPhone app.


Saeri Kiritani’s “100 Pounds of Rice” is a sculpture built of, yes, 100 pounds of rice (and rice noodles, for the hair). Many of Kiritani’s pieces examine questions of Asian identity (she’s Japanese, but now works in America), and this self-portrait emphasizes the role of rice in her culture and upbringing.


The inspiration for the photograph “For Delia” came out of the past. After viewing daguerreotypes of slaves,D.C.-based artist Heidi Fancher, one of the competition’s commended portraitists, became captivated with one of a woman named Delia. Posing as Delia for this self-portrait was Fancher’s way of giving Delia a voice.


“The Birth of Inez Imake” by Ginny Stanford was inspired by a dream in which Stanford saw the work of a fictional artist named Inez Imake. Stanford created an entire identity for the dream-artist, which included painting this portrait of Imake. Stanford eventually recognized Imake as a manifestation of herself.