June 28--Human portraiture has been a function of human art since people started painting in caves 40,000 years ago. Portraits were a focus of photographers from the foundation of that technology. What better subject matter, then, for the new exhibition at the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum?
Called "Portrait/Process," it's curated by IPHFM board member Ellen Curlee and filled with unexpected processes and images. "It's organized to be a thumbnail history of photography shown through portraits," Curlee says.
The exhibition is organized in sections she calls "salons," each focusing on a different aspect of portraiture, from conceptual (photography that illustrates an idea) to environmental (not formally posed; the setting and other details help to tell the story), with a mash-up of styles that mix, for example, the 19th-century technology of the tintype with 21st-century digital photography.
Some of the portraits are instantly recognizable figures from the museum's permanent collection, such as Herman Leonard's black-and-white images of smoke-wreathed jazz icons Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington, and Yousuf Karsh's familiar portrait of a truculent Winston Churchill.
Curlee makes good use of other items from the collection. Other salons hold daguerreotypes and other portraits of individuals and families now anonymous, along with cartes d'visite, calling cards with photographs on them. They all provide a contrast to the contemporary uses of those technologies in very different styles.
One of the most engaging salons is St. Louis'Patti Gabriel's colorful series on weavers in Madhya Pradesh, India, from field to fabric, a group of vibrant, sympathetic portraits.
There are three studio shots of the young Elvis Presley from the collection, publicity stills in full smolder mode. Arranged close to the trinity of authentic Presleys are modern pictures of assorted Elvis impersonators, multiracial, mostly of the late, jump-suit stage, and of varying degrees of resemblance.
Some portraits are very much of the moment, such as Ellen Jantzen's surreal digital fantasies and Brian Riley's nude self-portraits, which use iPhone technology to create layers of color and mystery. Mark Katzman's "Happy Lady" is a video portrait of Erica McElrath, who danced joyfully on St. Louis street corners, lightening the moods of those who saw her, after losing her job as a hospice nurse.
One artist, Michelle Rogers Pritzl, shoots digital self-portraits and then makes them into tintypes; another prints ambrotypes (a system used in the 1850s) and then reproduces them digitally. Another short-lived technology, the Polaroid, makes an appearance. So do found photographs from years past, odd snapshots that recall the work of St. Louisan Bill Keaggy.
Two self-portraits of artist Emily Stremming and her mother arrest the eye. Both use identically posed, identically sized headshots of each, cut into strips and woven together. One puts her mother's sections vertically, which trumps the horizontal and makes the vertical dominant; the other reverses that, putting Stremming's on top, in a fascinating study.
The International Photography Hall of Fame is not a large museum, but its small size belies the number of images that demand examination. When you're done, you can even take your own portrait that fits in with the collection: In a corner close to the door, there's an old-fashioned backdrop, showing a hand-painted lake. A carefully shaped collage of postcard-sized photos of happy people adorns a wall nearby. It's a way to be a part of the museum and its mission.
When -- 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday-Sunday; closed Monday-Tuesday (runs through Sept. 28)
Where -- International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 3415 Olive Street
How much -- $5 ($3 seniors and students with ID; children under 18 free)
More info -- 314-535-1999; iphf.org
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