Worth a Thousand Words

New Portraits Exhibit Is a True Eye-Opener

Posted December 5, 2008 at 5:11pm

It’s possible that the most striking portrait in the National Portrait Gallery’s newest exhibit is not of President-elect Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) but of Christine Roth.

Martin Schoeller, who also shot the photos of Obama and McCain, photographed Roth for his book “Female Bodybuilders.” In the photo, her icy blue eyes stare into the lens as her blond hair hangs limply to her shoulders; she could pass for a soccer mom. Below her neck, though, Roth’s hardened muscle is barely concealed under her sparkling red bkini top. Schoeller said he photographed female bodybuilders in an effort to show their vulnerability.

Formerly an assistant to renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, Schoeller is one of six magazine photographers whose work is being displayed in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit “Portraiture Now: Feature Photography.” Included are a wide variety of photos — from Norman Mailer to a teenage girl in a pink hat.

This is the fourth Portraiture Now exhibit. The series is designed to highlight contemporary portraits that might not qualify for the gallery’s permanent collection. Bethany Bentley, a spokeswoman for the gallery, explained that the permanent collection showcases only recognizable faces of people who have somehow influenced American life and culture. While some of Schoeller’s other subjects would qualify for the permanent collection, his portraits of Roth and fellow bodybuilder Kim Harris likely wouldn’t.

Schoeller does have photos of Lance Armstrong and Andre Agassi in the permanent collection. Ryan McGinley is the only other artist represented in the new exhibit who also has an object in the permanent collection; his is of Olympian Michael Phelps.

In this exhibit, McGinley, the youngest of the six photographers at 31, contributes photos of Morrissey concerts that he attended from 2004 to 2006.

A Morrissey fan since he was a teenager, McGinley wrote in his artist statement that “the idea behind this series was to capture the feeling from the perspective of a fan attending a Morrissey concert.”

Unlike the other artists’ portraits, which were usually taken as the subject posed, McGinley’s photos often show Morrissey and his fans sweaty and reacting to the music. They blur in lights from the stage. Some shots use a crowd to frame an individual subject, while others zero in on facial expressions.

Steve Pyke, a staff photographer at the New Yorker, has also photographed entertainers, but his photos bear no resemblance to McGinley’s. The only black-and-white photographs in the exhibit, Pyke’s show actors Ian McKellen and Michael J. Fox, as well as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Black Panther Bobby Seale and author Norman Mailer.

In contrast, Alec Soth’s photos, in a room across the hall from Pyke’s, focus on color. Soth’s female subjects have dyed hair — a young girl whose blond hair is dyed pink — or wear bright clothing — a woman wrapped in a beach towel leaning against a white picket fence.

Jocelyn Lee’s photos mostly of children pair her subjects with animals or unusual backgrounds. A Maine native, Lee often shoots on assignment in her home state.

Three photos of young girls were taken in Portland during a city program that introduced girls to professional women. Lee taught the girls about photography and took their portraits. One shows an African-American girl wearing a pink tank top lying in the grass, staring off into the distance as a yellow moth rests on her hand. Another shows a blond girl, her eyes wide open, clutching a pair of dead birds against her chest as she lies on a forest floor. The third shows a skinny redhead lingering in the bushes next to a building.

Finally, Katy Grannan’s photos were always taken with a story in mind. A series of four photos she shot for the New York Times Magazine accompanied a 2007 cover story called “The Women’s War” that explained the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual harassment on female Iraq War veterans. Grannan photographed four women individually; the most poignant is of a woman in a fatigue jacket and jeans, sitting on a swing with her small son on her lap and clouds rolling in behind her. Her best photo, though, is of a man who could have been the veterans’ leader, Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, photographed for a New York Times Magazine story that hasn’t yet been published. Stone’s face is obscured by the cigarette smoke billowing out of his mouth.

“Editorial assignments happen really fast,” Grannan wrote in her artist statement. “It can be ludicrous, an exercise in stamina that requires a good dose of crazy. But I love it, and it never feels like work. I’m pretty lucky, actually — I love to make photographs. The good ones are magic.”

The exhibit will be on display through Sept. 27, 2009, and can also be seen online at npg.si.edu/exhibit/feature.