What's most remarkable about Portrait/Process, the lush new exhibit at the International Photography Hall of Fame, is not merely the sheer diversity of "portraits" on display, but also the show's animating concept — charting how photographic processes, once a binding limitation of the medium, have become as integral to artistic expression as the moment a photographer releases the shutter.
The show, organized by Ellen Curlee, takes the long view, comprising everything from early daguerreotypes and tintypes, to iPhone photos and video. In that sense, Portrait/Process offers viewers the opportunity to consider the entire history of photography through the lens of the portrait. In another sense, however, the exhibit's narrow focus allows for an illuminating meditation on something else: Namely, how the portrait, once thought of as an accurate representation of the sitter, has changed over the years — morphing first into the gauzy idealism of the studio portrait, to the frank grittiness of the environmental portrait and, finally, to the highly processed, nearly abstract images so prevalent today. In other words, Portrait/Process invites viewers to consider not only how we've seen others through the years, but also how we've seen ourselves.
Organized thematically, the show opens on a funny note, with three promotional stills of a young Elvis Presley. Shirtless and sultry, the King is in full dreamboat mode in these idealized images — his smoky bedroom eyes ablaze, his bee-stung lips pouting just so. Contrast these to the nearby portraits by Michael Dvorak of several latter-day Elvis impersonators. Garbed in rhinestones and jumpsuits, these pretenders, some hirsute, some balding, all a bit paunchy, recall a very different of idea of the King, — a less glamorous one, perhaps, but culturally no less potent.
Similarly arresting are the gorgeous, heroic images of jazz greats by photographers Herman Leonard and William Claxton that line the opposing wall. These photographs — of Thelonious Monk, enveloped in smoke as he sits composing at the piano; of young Chet Baker, shown in profile, his wife Halima leaning against his arm; or Duke Ellington, alone at a piano — are among the show's most recognizable. Equally well known are the artfully posed and meticulously lighted studio portraits by Yousuf Karsh of a thoughtful Albert Einstein and a glowering Winston Churchill.
But these idealized images quickly give way, as the show branches off into more modern treatments of the portrait. In addition to his photographs of Elvis impersonators, Dvorak is well represented here, with an entire wall devoted to his Close to Home series of environmental portraits. These frank images, scrubbed of even the slightest hint of Karsh's idealism, present their unvarnished subjects in situ — a pair of Shriners standing before a car, an elderly couple bedecked in their Dr Pepper finery.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the highly staged and discernibly manipulated self-portraits of Kimiko Yoshida and Heather Bennett, photographers whose glossy, conceptual work creates fictional narratives that in this context speak to the artifice of the medium.
The show concentrates more explicitly on process in the works of artists like Michelle Rogers Pritzl and Mark Katzman — photographers who incorporate nineteenth-century technologies like the tintype and the ambrotype with digital forms of image making. Still other artists, such as Ellen Jantzen and Brian Riley, use unabashedly modern techniques to create haunting, multilayered photographs. While Emily Stremming's work relies on handicraft: physically weaving images of the artist and her mother together to create a pair of psychologically rich portraits.
Blending the old with the new, Portrait/Process, like the IPHF's previous show, Decisive Moments, strikes a difficult balance here: It is at once a broad historical survey and a vibrant exhibit. It's no easy task to pull off, but this little museum, less than a year old, has shown once again that it seems up to the challenge.
Portrait/Process Through September 28 at the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 3415 Olive Street. Tickets are $3 to $5. Call 314-535-1999 or visit www.iphf.org. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wed.-Thu.
Follow RFT critic-at-large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.