Portrait Show Brings Photographer-Subject Encounters Into Focus In photographer Chuck Close's portrait of model Kate Moss, Moss looks pretty ordinary — her skin is a confetti of freckles and pores, and there's no airbrushing to be seen. Moss trusted in Close's art, but, as an exhibit at Washington's Phillips Collection demonstrates, that isn't always the case.
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Portrait Show Brings Photographer-Subject Encounters Into Focus

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Portrait Show Brings Photographer-Subject Encounters Into Focus

Portrait Show Brings Photographer-Subject Encounters Into Focus

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There are probably more photographs being taken this holiday season than ever before in history. All our smart devices turn us all into paparazzi, snapping, posing, posting, emailing, Instagramming. NPR Special correspondent Susan Stamberg saw an exhibition of portrait photography in Washington recently that piqued her interest, because it was so very different from our today's incessant snapping.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: We always smile for pictures, mile-wide grins. There's not a smile in the room at the photography show at the Phillips Collection. Mostly there: portraits of inner lives taken by various photographers. So it becomes about the encounter between the two participants.

SUSAN BEHRENDS FRANK: I see this whole spectrum of conversation, it's like a dance between the photographer and the subject.

STAMBERG: Susan Behrends Frank curated this small show. It's called "Shaping a Modern Identity," and it's chosen from the collection of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg of Washington, D.C. And while there are no big grins, there certainly are plenty of poses. In a color series called "Nomads," Andres Serrano invited various people in front of his camera.

FRANK: He showed up with a plain backdrop, lights. He asked these people to pose. He said all he asked of them was to look left or right.

STAMBERG: One of Serrano's subjects - he called himself Sir Leonard - is a majestic, monumental African-American.

FRANK: He's wearing a big floppy hat, like Harrison Ford did.

STAMBERG: A regular Indiana Jones, plus a fitted tweed overcoat, woolen gloves and white bandana around his neck.

FRANK: When you look closely, you see it's a restaurant dinner napkin.

STAMBERG: Sir Leonard was homeless, destitute. Yet in this 1990 picture, he presents himself with style and flair. On another wall, one of the most famous faces in the world.

FRANK: She is Kate Moss, the supermodel.

STAMBERG: For years, Kate Moss has been the definition of glamour and beauty on the pages of glossy fashion magazines. In artist Chuck Close's extreme close-up, she looks like a girl in a dusty little Texas town, maybe walking along a railroad track.

FRANK: No makeup on this woman. Her hair appears unkempt. She stares out at us blankly, I think.

STAMBERG: There's nothing in her eyes.

FRANK: No, there's not.

STAMBERG: Wrinkles under the blank eyes, her skin a confetti of freckles and pores - no air-brushing to be seen. In 2005, Chuck Close spent five hours on this shoot with Kate Moss for W magazine.

Now, what do you know about their relationship? Because I would imagine for her to permit herself to be shown this way, this was a man she had known forever, and she could be that natural and open with him. Is that true, or had they just met?

FRANK: No, no. They've known each other.

STAMBERG: She trusted him, had even posed nude for him over the course of various photo shoots. Years ago, photographer Richard Avedon said portrait photography was an exercise in unearned intimacy, subject and photographer connecting intensely in a brief period of time. But in Chuck Close's portrait of Kate Moss, the intimacy has been earned over years.

OK, where is she? Oh, look. There's Frida Kahlo.

FRANK: There's Frida Kahlo.


STAMBERG: Another female icon, Imojen Cunningham, shot the Mexican painter in 1931, when Kahlo was just 24. Her husband, Diego Rivera - a legend in his day - brought her to California while painting some murals. The young Kahlo is fresh and sweet. She hasn't fully grown into the pain and suffering that will etch her face for life.

She's wearing her great artistic clothes: big beads, big earrings, her eyebrows not yet fully grown together in the middle. The photo is called "Frida Kahlo, Painter and Wife of Diego Rivera."

FRANK: This was when she was a young woman known primarily as the wife of a painter that had a far larger reputation than her own at the time.

STAMBERG: Finally, one more portrait, large and in color, by Tina Barney - American, as most of the photographers are in this Phillips show. In 1995, Barney wanted to photograph aristocrats in their homes for a series called "The Europeans." "The Orange Room" is a portrait of non-disclosure. Or is it? The subject is male. We're not told his name.

FRANK: Here is this elderly gentleman in a three-piece gray suit with white hair and a balding pate.

STAMBERG: He sits against an orange wall in an armchair, elbows on the arms. On the wall, a small, old painting - it could be a saint - and a seascape. On a fine antique console nearby are various objects - when they're expensive, you say objet. Porcelain figures, a glass and gold bowl, other fancy tchotchkes. They are on display. He, on the other hand, is not. Mr. X tents his hands in front of his face, so we can't see his mouth.

FRANK: He has put this barrier between Tina Barney, the photographer and himself...


FRANK: ...and us, with us - that so that we can't really see who he is.

STAMBERG: Now, if I were the photographer, I'd kill him. I'd say, well, could you put your hands down?

FRANK: I don't know that she did that. You know, I think what she was fascinated by was how people responded to her presence that didn't really know her. He's, like, guarding his inner person very carefully here.

STAMBERG: So we see him guarded, hiding, and we wonder if he's allowing himself to be identified by his things, not his self. Or is that his self?

It's really fascinating, this show at the Phillips, until January 12th. What do we choose to reveal in a photo portrait? What do we hide? And what do our wide, sunny smiles conceal in the pictures we take and pose for with family and friends?

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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