Art review: Stare all you want at photo portraits in Akron Art Museum exhibit

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Vivian Maier, Untitled, 1961 (printed 2011), gelatin silver print, 12 x 12 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Gift of Russell and Barbara Bowman in honor of Mitchell D. Kahan 2012.39

It isn’t polite to stare. It’s among the first lessons in good manners many of us learn, and one of the most enduring.

For a time, however, and within the confines of a museum, we’ve been given permission to do just that.

Invitation to Stare: Photographic Portraits is on view at the Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St., through June 1. It’s an exhibit of 32 works by 26 artists working from the early 20th century to the present.

The work covers portraits of strangers and loved ones, street people and celebrities, and every now and then self-portraits, or — as they’ve come to be called with the advent of the smartphone— “selfies.”

It is, in fact, with the current proliferation of such images in mind that Arnold Tunstall, the museum’s collection’s manager, organized this show.

“This exhibit of portrait photography is one I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” said Tunstall. “The challenge with this show was having over 2,000 photographs to look at and out of that hundreds of really great portraits to choose from.

“It was so frustrating trying to cut this show,” he admitted. “I think my first cut was 230 images. Then I got it down to my ‘tight 95,’ then to 32, but only last week.”

The final cut is “a group that we thought made sense together,” he explained. Five have been shown before; the rest are new or recently acquired. Almost all are from the museum’s collection.

“I think two have been borrowed from the Fred and Laura Bidwell collection, who are doing a portrait show at Transformer Station this coming summer, and this show will connect with that one,” not only in theme, but in programming, he said. “But we had so many to choose from, I didn’t have to borrow that many from them.”

Trying to get works by a diverse group of artists to go together may seem simple, but as Tunstall explained, his challenge was finding a reason to show them together.

The connecting thread turned out to be portraits that are so powerful that they make you look — stare, in this case.

“There’s a relationship between the photographer and the sitter,” Tunstall explained. “There may be a real intimacy or a passing one, but it’s a real connection.

“I felt all of these had a level of intimacy that made you want to continue to look at them because both the sitter and the photographer are inviting you to do something you are normally uncomfortable doing.

“As babies, the first thing we learn to discern is faces, and of course, that never leaves you. We are so fascinated by faces, it stays with you all of your life.”

One of the most beautiful faces in the exhibit is found in Lella, Bretagne (1948) by Edouard Boubat.

“She’s classically beautiful,” said Tunstall. “She looks like a Botticelli.”

Lella met Boubat in 1946, the year he began taking photographs. She is shown on a summer day on the deck of a ship. Her best friend, Séguis, can be seen just behind her. She and Boubat would marry that fall, and she became his muse. He became famous for his images of children and scenes around Paris.

In several of the works, it becomes increasingly clear that the photographer and his subject are collaborators. That’s clearly projected in works such as Eleanor, Chicago (1949) by Harry Callahan and Toni Morrison (1998) by Andrea Modica, for example.

Of intense local interest is the collaboration between photographer Angelo Merendino and his late wife, Jennifer, both Akron natives. Merendino’s photo-documentary, The Battle We Didn’t Choose: My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer, has received worldwide recognition.

A mere six months after they were married, Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer. The image in this exhibit is from that series. It shows Jennifer, wrapped in a robe and sitting in an examination room waiting for the results of her biopsy to be brought in by the physician. Her body language says it all.

Merendino took thousands of photographs chronicling her three-year fight, beginning as a blog they created to communicate from New York with family in Ohio. The series had a viral impact, speaking to the many others who have struggled with devastating disease. In December, three of Merendino’s photographs were added to the permanent collection of the Akron Art Museum.

The museum has about an equal number of men as women photographers, a collection ratio the museum is quite proud of, Tunstall said. “It’s almost 50-50 in this exhibit as well, which is unusual, but it’s a particular strength of our collection.”

Many of the photographers were well known in their own time; very few were completely unknown. This exhibit contains the work of two artists whose work has only recently been discovered.

One is Vivian Maier, born in 1926 in New York City, who worked as a nanny there and in Chicago for about 40 years, dying in 2009 without ever showing anyone a single image of the 250,000 that she took during her lifetime.

“She was discovered posthumously, and she’s rapidly becoming a major person in late-20th-century photography,” said Tunstall. “She was an extremely, intensely private person, but great at capturing portraits and street life. She was clearly doing this for herself, not anyone else. She’s one of the great mysteries in the history of photography.”

Another such individual is Michael Disfarmer, who was born in Chicago in 1884 and died in Herber Springs, Ark., in 1959.

“He was also discovered posthumously,” Tunstall said. “He was the town photographer until the 1950s, but not known to the art world until the 1970s. He has since become a huge influence in the art world. When he was first discovered, only negatives of his works were found, and at first they didn’t think any vintage prints existed.”

The photographs were taken between World War I and World War II in his studio.

“Disfarmer was extremely eccentric, and he made people uncomfortable. A lot of the power in these images is that his subjects reveal that discomfort. He would do things to heighten their discomfort,” Tunstall said. “He wouldn’t speak during the entire session, or when he was ready to take the picture, he would do something weird, like ring a cowbell.

“The owner of the prints we have in this show is a huge donor to the museum,” he said. “We’re really lucky to have so many of his prints — 57 vintage prints out of 60 total.”

At 6:30 p.m. May 29, the documentary Disfarmer: A Portrait of America will be shown at the museum. Other special programs in conjunction with this exhibit include:

• Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m. — Film: The Vivian Maier Mystery. Free. Screening sponsored by Herb Ascherman.

• April 3, 6:30 p.m. — Talk by Merendino on The Battle We Didn’t Choose.

• April 17, 6:30 p.m. — “Art History 101: Photographic Portraiture” with Tunstall. Learn about the artists and sitters featured in Invitation to Stare.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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