What’s in a portrait? A sense of our human connection to one another

Diane Sleeping, Poletown, Detroit, 2013, pigment print (Dave Jordano)

What is it that makes us connect to a person in a photograph whom we have never met? What makes portraits so effective at encouraging empathy? The answers to these questions may be more visceral than verbal. Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery and director of the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, defines a portrait as “a direct encounter with an individual.”

The competition transcends mediums; paintings are compared to videos, sculpture, fiber art. Each are judged on how individual artists have mastered their craft. The 43 Outwin 2016 finalists, selected from 2,500 entrants, range from emerging to internationally recognized artists. The overarching thread is that the piece must work as a portrait according to the definition.

Of the 43 finalists, 19 were photographs submitted by photographers from across the United States. They explore poignant topics, including race, gender, modern issues in childhood and immigration. Moss said in an interview with In Sight that “the photographs this year really stood out; they showed the urgency with which the artists grappled with current events in the last 3 years. The photos could be their own show.”

Dave Jordano, a finalist with a portrait from his project, “Detroit: Unbroken Down,” addresses the cultural shifts occurring in his home town. Jordano described the force behind his work to Brandon Brame Fortune, the Portrait Gallery’s chief curator and senior curator of painting and sculpture. “Detroit is still a living, breathing city, struggling perhaps, but full of people surviving.”

Dawoud Bey, professor of art and a distinguished college artist at Columbia College Chicago, served as a juror for the contest. In his juror’s statement, Bey said: “I think there is something democratic about portraits in that one might not know a lot about art but one certainly has engagement with other human beings. Through that familiarity, one can enter a conversation with a portrait in a way that might be easier for some people than with other forms of art.” Both Moss and Bey agreed that the portraits need to go beyond being a physical object, extending into an emotional and psychological experience.

The exhibition will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from March 12, 2016, through Jan. 8, 2017. The prizewinners will be announced at the opening. The winner will receive a grand prize of $25,000 and an opportunity to create a portrait for the gallery’s permanent collection.

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