New York

“Faces Photographed: Contemporary Camera Images”

Most of the photographs here are portraits of one sort or another, but despite the show’s title, few have all that much to do with faces. Instead most of them employ—but do not confront—various forms of stylization, both photographic and personal, and the fictive personas created by photographers and their subjects for fashion and magazine illustration. The sitters here are mainly celebrities, models, people with exotic, “interesting” faces—but the photographs are seldom just of faces. Few tasks in photography are as difficult as to photograph a person’s face and reveal something surprising and true about the subject. The photographer risks having the face become simply a kind of fingerprint, a unique collection of fleshy knobs and swales, with the photograph a topographical map of the terrain. Photographers often turn to a variety of devices—lighting, cropping, lens selection—to inflect the bare information provided by a sitter’s features, or use props or poses to indicate to the audience who this person is, or who we’re supposed to think he or she is. Portraiture of this sort becomes a species of stage design, with the photographer establishing a pictorial environment full of clues to the subject’s personality, or to the source of his or her fame. (The best-known practitioner of this approach is Arnold Newman, who in his portraits of artists tries to find shorthand visual devices to signify his sitters’ visual styles: for Piet Mondrian, for example, the strict verticals of an easel.) The set and the photographic style become as important as the subject’s face.

The three-way transaction among photographer, sitter, and viewer is twisted to another level of complexity when the subjects are celebrities—known, by face or deed, to a public that has no direct relationship with them. Even photographic portraits then become caricatures of a kind, echoing, revising, and commenting upon the image of the sitter that the public already has from other sources. The persona of a celebrity becomes in time a sort of palimpsest of projections, continuously smudged, erased, rewritten. Public portraits—particularly those made for magazines—must respond to the celebrity not as a person, but as an image, a fiction.

Many of the people depicted in this show are celebrities, though most are of a particularly fashionable sort: stars not of the Johnny Carson show, but of New York’s intellectual and artistic salons. Nancy Crampton, for example, offers straightforward black and white views of Saul Bellow, John Cage, Joseph Heller, Lee Krasner, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Frank Stella, Tom Wolfe—and so on, through a veritable cultural A List. Using simple, environmental props to emphasize the sitter’s persona—Tom Wolfe, for example, stands by an elegant door fitted with brass fixtures and framed with twining ivy—Crampton’s work suggests newspaper illustration. Scott Heiser’s selection of celebrities is more rarefied, including as it does Gerard Depardieu, Alberta Hunter, Jessica Mitford, and Robert Wilson. Heiser’s photographic style is based on the japonisme tricks of turn-of-the-century Photo-Secession pictorialism: within elongated frames, the figures are usually pushed to one side of a moodily lit scene, reflected in mirrors, or seen through sunstruck windows.

William Coupon uses exotic cultural and ethnic types—cowboys, Haitians, Australian aborigines—in his work. Like fashion models, another group portrayed in many of the pictures here, his subjects are presented not as individuals, but as representatives of cultural stereotypes: thus they form a cognate variant of celebrity stereotypes. Coupon also uses a pronounced if derivative set of stylistic clues to frame his sitters: the mottled backdrop and soft side-lighting of 19th-century vernacular portraitists, a style kept alive in recent years by Irving Penn, in photographs of subjects as diverse as South American Indians and motorcycle-gang members.

And so it goes, for much of the work here. Alice Springs takes her stylistic frame from another nostalgic source, film noir; using its deep shadows and screaming highlights she makes art dealer Frank Lloyd appear as gloweringly ominous as J.P. Morgan in Edward Steichen’s famous portrait, while film director Bob Rafelson, caught in the chinks of light filtered through a venetian blind, looks like a B-movie gunsel. David Seidner spotlights the faces of his celebrities (among them Philip Glass, Christopher Isherwood, Karl Lagerfeld, and Shelley Duvall) and photographs them from unusual angles and with odd framing, then mounts two or three small prints side by side. The pallid faces hang against the background murk like masks in a very arch melodrama.

With all this pretension and snuffling star-worship, it’s a relief to come to the few artists in the show who seem to recognize the complexity of the activity they’re engaged in. Cindy Sherman’s dramatic-vignette self-portraits are here juxtaposed with examples of some of the visual paradigms they play off (many of the other photographers in the show work extensively for fashion and news magazines). John Coplans is represented by two very different groups of work; the most recent, from 1982, includes forgettable, Diane Arbus—like flash closeups of people in parades, but a series from 1981 was among the most interesting work in the show. In this group Coplans photographed couples rather than individuals; this simple device radically alters the usual viewer-viewed equation of portraits, in which the subject of the photograph—celebrity, model, type—becomes a kind of commodity for the unabashed stare of the viewer/consumer. Coplans’ tightly framed couples outnumber the viewer, and their calm gaze affirms their knowledge of their own power. In one photograph, Marge and Susan, 1980, Coplans seems to have realized the tremendous emotional power of a glance—a basic notion in acting, whether on stage or film, but one that no one else in this show seems aware of. In this picture a mother looks proudly at her daughter, who gazes out to the camera. The emotional relationship between the two women is palpable and specific, informed by memory and values; it is a relationship between one person and another, and not the abstracted persona-to-public relationship depicted in most of the other work here.

Overall this was a tantalizing, frustrating show, veering erratically around the issues implied by its thesis. Some of the work was interesting but off the point: it’s true that William Wegman’s dog, Man Ray, was an art star, but his inclusion here was a cutesy conceit. Other work was simply off the point—for example, Bruce Weber’s meretricious, simpering beefcake, or Cosimo di Leo Ricatto’s flashy but pointless multiple-view grids of nude women.

A photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe could serve to symbolize the kind of portraiture that the exhibition was about: Jack Walls (I), 1982, shows a young man, black or Hispanic (and thus another exotic ethnic), dressed in denim, cap pulled low around his ears, facing the camera head-on—but with his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. Similarly, most of the pictures in this show are of masks, personas; when they’re not actively creating these masks, the photographers are simply accepting them, acquiescing to them with uncritical eagerness.

Charles Hagen