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Death-Defying Portraiture

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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.