Portraits exploring the symbiotic relationship between art and identity

Portraits exploring the symbiotic relationship between art and identity

A new exhibition brings together over 50 works made between 1912 and 2015, examining the ways in which performance of self becomes a visual language.

Photography is both a window and a mirror, revealing and reflecting the role that sight plays in the construction of identity. Within this space, fashion and beauty are among our most powerful tools for telegraphing our inner lives, dreams, aspirations and notions of self to the world.

Whether posing for a formal portrait or snapping a selfie, people have long embraced the opportunity to create an image that both captures and transcends the moment in which it was made. With the proliferation of social media, representations of self loom larger than ever before, inviting us to participate, critique and reconsider the intricate relationship between identity, aesthetics and iconography.

“Our choices about clothing, makeup, hairstyles and accessories are a component of the way we communicate who we are, what we value, and what is important to us,” says Rebecca A. Senf, Chief Curator at the Center for Creative Photography, where the new exhibition, Fashioning Self: The Photography of Everyday Expression, is currently on view.

Bringing together over 50 works made between 1912 and 2015, Fashioning the Self examines the ways in which street, documentary and self-portrait photography draw upon the performance of self as an integral part in the process of art-making itself.

Top to bottom: Mrs. Mary Hatchett, Chicago, 1979. Photo: Laura Volkerding / Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Laura Volkerding Archive. © Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation. American, White Girl 1970, 1970. Photo: Dennis Feldman / Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Gift of the artist.

“These prints are not just evidence of the photographer's process; they are also evidence of the self presentation process of the people who appear in the pictures,” says Senf. “When you have your portrait made, there's a process that goes behind thinking about what you'll wear, how you'll do your hair and what kind of sense of yourself are you trying to convey through the picture.”

Featuring works by Helen Levitt, Tseng Wong Chi, Charles “Teenie” Harris and Dennis Feldman, among others, Fashioning Self considers both the formal and informal ways in which people employ visual signifiers to transit their identities to the world. Whether donning ball gowns and fur wraps, cowboy hats and boots, bandana and chest tattoos, or unironic trucker hats, each subject conveys an intuitive sense of ease and authenticity that comes from being true to who they are.

Senf brings this integrity to the curation of the show, offering a broad array of images sparkling with individual expressions of character and poise that can resonate with the widest possible audience. “One of the most exciting things about photography is that it’s functioning as a visual language and people are using it to communicate ideas,” she says.

Juanito with Jesus Tattoo, Albuerquerque, NM, 1986. Photo: Miguel A. Gandert / Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Gift of Alan Manley.

With the democratisation of photography through digital technology, the power of image making has been rightfully restored to the people, giving them an opportunity to both create and share their images as never before.

With that freedom, people continue to evolve and redefine notions of identity through style, be it along lines of race, culture, sexuality, gender, ability, age or any mix thereof. “Throughout the nearly two centuries of photographs existence, people have increasingly been able to represent themselves,” says Senf. “It’s a powerful opportunity to better visualise humanity.”

Fashioning Self: The Photography of Everyday Expression is on view through November 12, 2023, at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

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