The term "selfie" may be a product of the smartphone era, but photographic portraits as a whole — from iconic celebrity photos to informal family snapshots — have been an integral part of our culture for the past 175 years.
In its latest exhibition, the International Photography Hall of Fame (3415 Olive Street) provides a historical perspective on the portrait, examining the forms and processes that have captivated our attention for the past 175 years.
Portrait/Process is IPHF's third exhibition here in St. Louis, and, as the name implies, it is all about the process of portrait photography. I stopped by last week to take a look around the galleries, and was lucky enough to get a guided tour from Executive Director John Nagel and Director of Exhibitions Jason Gray.
The work comes from local artists and internationally known photographers alike, and dates all the way back to the very first form of photographic portrait. "The daguerreotype was announced in 1839, and it took off like wildflowers," Nagel said. "Believe it or not, ninety percent of the photographs made were portraits. You see very little landscapes or anything like that. Everybody rushed to get their portraits made because — even though it was a complicated process — it was cheaper to get a portrait made with a daguerreotype than it was to get a painter to paint you."
Turns out, the daguerreotype portrait — which you'll see in many places throughout the exhibition — also has a special connection right here in Middle America. "Even after other photography processes were introduced, daguerreotypes were made popular in the United States, especially so in Midwestern centers outside New York City — so there's a strong connection to the daguerreotype locally," Gray pointed out.
The exhibit is broken into three separate salons, with the first focusing on the conceptual portrait. "You see a change in this particular salon with the photograph being less associated with the image and more with the concept and also the object of the photograph itself," Gray noted. "It sort of takes on the characteristics of almost a sculpture."
The next salon represents the studio portrait, and includes work from local artists Mark Katzmann and John Foster, as well as International Photography Hall of Fame inductee Yousuf Karsh. Donated to the exhibition by Karsh's wife, these celebrity portraits include the visages of Winston Churchill, Muhammad Ali, and Albert Einstein.
"The photograph that he did of Einstein was really the first sentimental portrait of him," Gray explained. "At the time he was considered sort of this evil genius because of his work that contributed to the atomic bomb. So when Karsh photographed him, he wanted to explore the other side."
The final salon focuses on the environmental portrait, where you'll see Herman Leonard's portraits of famous jazz musicians from Billie Holiday to Thelonius Monk, followed by Michael Dvorak's shots of everyday people at home in Minnesota.
At the very end of the exhibit sits a photobooth that emulates the background used by a local photographer from the Victorian era. Visitors are encouraged to snap a portrait on their smartphone and tag @iphfinstl on Instagram.
Portrait/Process runs from June 19 through September 28, 2014. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. For more information, visit iphof.org or call 314-535-1999.