Daily Picture Show

Death-Defying Portraiture

  • Magnum photographer Alec Soth says, "For me, photography is as much about the way I respond to the subject as it is about the subject itself."  He photographed FL, Buck Hill, Minnesota for Magnum's Fashion Magazine in 2007.
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    Magnum photographer Alec Soth says, "For me, photography is as much about the way I respond to the subject as it is about the subject itself." He photographed FL, Buck Hill, Minnesota for Magnum's Fashion Magazine in 2007.
  • Soth's portraits in this collection are of women, as the artist himself explores how he views them. Kristin, St. Paul, Minnesota was also taken for Fashion Week after Soth's return from Paris.
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    Soth's portraits in this collection are of women, as the artist himself explores how he views them. Kristin, St. Paul, Minnesota was also taken for Fashion Week after Soth's return from Paris.
  • The intricacies of the human face fascinate New York-based English photographer Steven Pyke.  "Signaling our emotions and suggesting our cultural background," he says, "our faces silently speak realms about our identities and how we present ourselves." He took this portrait of Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen.
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    The intricacies of the human face fascinate New York-based English photographer Steven Pyke. "Signaling our emotions and suggesting our cultural background," he says, "our faces silently speak realms about our identities and how we present ourselves." He took this portrait of Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen.
  • While many of Pyke's portraits are close-ups, this 2005 image of architect Rem Koolhaas reveals an interest in providing context.
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    While many of Pyke's portraits are close-ups, this 2005 image of architect Rem Koolhaas reveals an interest in providing context.
  • Jocelyn Lee explores the influence of environment and situation on a person's character: "I am interested in people, what it means to be alive, and how we make sense of the world."  This untitled image was taken in 1999.
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    Jocelyn Lee explores the influence of environment and situation on a person's character: "I am interested in people, what it means to be alive, and how we make sense of the world." This untitled image was taken in 1999.
  • Lee says she's "interested in photographing specific people at different stages of life." Here, she captures an Inuit woman in a hospital on Rankin Inlet for The New York Times Magazine in 2002.
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    Lee says she's "interested in photographing specific people at different stages of life." Here, she captures an Inuit woman in a hospital on Rankin Inlet for The New York Times Magazine in 2002.
  • Martin Schoeller's striking close-up portraiture – of subjects from President Barack Obama to Pirahã tribespeople of the Amazon – renders them all equal before the camera.
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    Martin Schoeller's striking close-up portraiture – of subjects from President Barack Obama to Pirahã tribespeople of the Amazon – renders them all equal before the camera.
  • In her self-portraits, Cindy Sherman always plays a different character. But for Schoeller, she reveals her identity, unmasked and full force, provoking the viewer to decide who she really is.
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    In her self-portraits, Cindy Sherman always plays a different character. But for Schoeller, she reveals her identity, unmasked and full force, provoking the viewer to decide who she really is.
  • Katy Grannan "produces distinctive, haunting portraits, often using the mundane particulars of everyday lives to heighten our sense of her subjects' individuality."  Audrey Wilbur made the cover of The New York Times Magazine on March 19, 2002.
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    Katy Grannan "produces distinctive, haunting portraits, often using the mundane particulars of everyday lives to heighten our sense of her subjects' individuality." Audrey Wilbur made the cover of The New York Times Magazine on March 19, 2002.
  • Grannan views photography as "a kind of permission; it's a way in. It's a catalyst for extraordinary experiences that would otherwise not be possible." A variant of this portrait of Forest Whitaker appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2007.
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    Grannan views photography as "a kind of permission; it's a way in. It's a catalyst for extraordinary experiences that would otherwise not be possible." A variant of this portrait of Forest Whitaker appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2007.
  • Ryan McGinley, a renowned documentarian of youth culture, at 24 became the youngest to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exhibit includes his tribute to English musician Morrissey, photographed at concerts from 2004 to 2006.
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    Ryan McGinley, a renowned documentarian of youth culture, at 24 became the youngest to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exhibit includes his tribute to English musician Morrissey, photographed at concerts from 2004 to 2006.
  • For McGinley, the musician embodies the emotions and rhythms of youth. McGinley's tribute – with crowd shots and scenes of Morrisey onstage — illustrates the photographer's experiments with tonality, light and size.
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    For McGinley, the musician embodies the emotions and rhythms of youth. McGinley's tribute – with crowd shots and scenes of Morrisey onstage — illustrates the photographer's experiments with tonality, light and size.

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"America is a snapshot culture." These are the introductory words to "Portraiture Now: Feature Photography," an exhibition currently at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

It's true that many of us have used digital cameras or camera phones — or at least disposables, Polaroids and Instamatics. We document our lives not necessarily in an artistic endeavor, but so that we can better remember it in years to come. Technology enables those easy, sometimes heedless captures. But, as the exhibition introduction continues, "there are portrait photographers today who create pictures that defy an easy death."

Even in a commercial setting, these fine-art photographers — commissioned by publications such as the New Yorker, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine — strive to express their unique voices and to create images that will outlive a magazine's shelf life. To them, the celebrity portrait on the cover is more than just a hook; it's an exploration of the individual, inimitable and infinitely unique.

This exhibition features renowned contemporary photographers Katy Grannan, Jocelyn Lee, Ryan McGinley, Steve Pyke, Martin Schoeller and Alec Soth. Although they are widely varied in aesthetic, voice and perspective, they are all equals in critical acclaim. Here's a sample of the images on display. All images and quotations courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.

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