New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Hidden Photographers

Incognito: The Hidden Self-Portrait
Abelardo Morrell, "My Camera and Me, 1991"

All photography begins with light cast across the film plane, making it the medium of illumination par excellence. Normally the photographer as prime mover remains invisible, standing outside the action. Yet, the longing to be the observed as well as the observer has often led the photographer to turn the lens on him or herself.

Foregoing the flat out egotism of the full-faced frontal portrait in favor of a more elusive celebration of the self, Yancey Richardson’s summer exhibit, Incognito: The Hidden Self Portrait offers an interesting variation on this theme.

Degrees of visibility, clarity, and presence reveal an ambivalent narcissism in much of this work. The images on display possess a vanity both solipsistic and vague, where the photographer becomes a voyeur, spying on himself.

Lee Friedlander and Ray Metzker ‘s quite similar studies of their reflections in shop windows have this voyeuristic quality. Using mirrors and windows and reflective surfaces in which to catch sight of himself, Friedlander became known for his quirky black and white self-portraits, but Metzker was primarily a formalist. Ken Josephson’s work from the same period often used his own shadow as a stand-in, pioneering the conceptual double entendre illustrated here by “New York State”.

Not only a medium of light in space but of time in motion, photography is a historical document in which the fugitive nature of identity is visibly tied to the fugitive nature of time. Unlike painting, which is cumulative, photography is necessarily of the moment and the moment is always passing. This is why Civil War tintypes, for example, are so poignant. Those long dead soldiers who gaze at us now with such clarity, their faces glowing on the picture plane, once stood in front of the camera, alive at a precise moment in time.

Pictures such as Mathew Pillsbury’s time-exposed image of himself lolling in front of the TV makes that temporal connection abundantly clear. The subject is disappearing, even as he is appearing, suggesting that identity is a fragile child of time. The handsome out of focus and blurred images by Bill Jacobson and Lynn Saville do something similar, their shadow selves rendering them present but unidentifiable. There, but vaguely so. Like an afterthought.

 by unidentified photographer.
Arno Rafael Minkkinen, "Nauvo, Finland, 1973"

As photography has become more and more subsumed into the art world, all too eagerly aping its inanities, a whole group of photographers have become successful by creating bodies of work that turn on a trick. (William Wegman comes readily to mind.) So much so that art photography is in danger of becoming– as is art itself – a branch of show business.

Rachel Welty whose large color print epitomizes the cleverness endemic in so much recent work presents us with yet another image turning on a trick. Her trick is camouflage. In a meticulously staged image she presents us with herself immersed in a pattern: a clever idea but just that.

The need for attention often goes hand in hand with sexual display and so we get a lush crop of photographers presenting their own bodies for our inspection. Mostly this self-examination is obvious, but very occasionally it is inspired. Arno Minkkinen’s work, so extraordinary inventive, so psychologically astute, avoids the puerile banalities of most to create stark poetic metaphors. A superb study of his torso, whose contorted form rises out of the water like a sea monster, illustrates his curious ability to arrange himself like any other prop. Strictly speaking, his are not self-portraits at all, for he has drained the self from the body, studying its twisted remains with a cold, objective, remarkably detached eye.

The theme of the eye with its obvious but potent emphasis on seeing, that all important sense in photography, is present in Anne Collier’s and Esko Mannikko’s work. The latter creates a more unusual and unsettling image, seeing herself reflected in an eye, not necessarily human.

David Hilliard’s, The Kiss, both reveals and conceals the object of his desire—someone whose face is obscure, but whose testicles are clearly on display, giving rise to the question: is he identical with his sex?

Perhaps the most evocative and fully realized image in the show is Abelando Morell’s beautifully conceived study of himself in the ground glass of a view camera. Foregrounding the reflective nature of photography as well as portraiture, it sums up in a single image major aspects of the medium, giving us much to think about. As does the show in general.

Unlike many concept-themed shows being staged about town, there is actually a ‘there there’, in the Hidden Self Portrait; Yancey Richardson should be congratulated for putting on an exceptionally well-chosen and intelligent exhibit.

Incognito: The Hidden Self-Portrait

Yancey Richardson Gallery
535 W 22nd St. 3rd Fl
Chelsea         Map

646 230 9610

Thursday, July 15 to
Friday, August 27, 2010
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11 to 6