Drawn from the collections of the Metropolitan and the Gilman Paper Company, this installation of some fifty masterworks accompanies the landmark exhibition Richard Avedon: Portraits and surveys the first hundred years of photographic portraiture, from early American and French daguerreotypes through the work of Diane Arbus. The installation highlights classic images of artists and writers, actors and composers, by Nadar, Edward Steichen, and Berenice Abbott, among others.
Upon its invention, photography both democratized the portrait—for the first time, people of any means could have their pictures taken—and provided society with likenesses of its most famous and infamous members. The greatest portraits represent a true collaboration between the artist, who infuses the subject with a particular vision, and the sitter, who invents the self for the camera, inflected by the spirit of the time.
The earliest images in the exhibition—French and American daguerreotypes and delicate paper prints—display a range of emotions and effects, from the intimate, contemplative picture by Louis-Rémy Robert of his daughter reading (1850s) to the imposing figure of judge Lemuel Shaw captured in a flood of light by the Boston photographer team of Southworth & Hawes (1850s). Also featured are masterful mid-century portraits by Nadar that chronicled Second Empire France through its most distinguished and colorful figures and Julia Margaret Cameron's gripping portrayal of the doomed tubercular poet Philip Stanhope Worsley (1864–66).
Three American pictures from the 1860s summarize perfectly the Civil War: Alexander Gardner's iconic group portrait of somber Union officers on the steps of the home of Robert E. Lee (ca. 1862); a large-format paper print from the Gilman Paper Company Collection of a seated African American boy that is a moving and eloquent testament to the cause that provoked the war (1860s); and Gardner's hypnotic, slightly off-kilter photograph of the captured conspirator Lewis Paine (1865).
Turn-of-the-century depictions of artists and writers balance Symbolist reverie and the cult of celebrity, from Edward Steichen's swirling vision of the composer Richard Strauss (1904) emerging from darkness to the self-conscious ennui displayed by Oscar Wilde in a publicity photograph for his American lecture tour (1882). During the 1920s and 1930s, the portrait became a stage from which to proclaim the emergence of the modern individual, embodied most powerfully in the figure of the artist, from Rodchenko's direct portrayal of a gimlet-eyed Vladimir Mayakovsky (1924) staring down the viewer to Man Ray's sinister view of the enfant terrible Tristan Tzara seated nonchalantly on a ledge with an ax dangling over his head (1921).
The exhibition concludes with three faces of artistic celebrity that prefigure our own time: James Doolittle's hyper-glamorous close-up of a heavy-lidded Marlene Dietrich (ca. 1931); Hans Namuth's action photograph of Jackson Pollock slinging paint—a picture that would make the artist an unwilling star of the new mass media (ca. 1951); and Diane Arbus' witty portrayal of Norman Mailer stretched provocatively across an armchair (1963), a nascent vision of the artist as knowing media provocateur.