Who deserves to be photographed?
A new exhibition at the International Center of Photography, titled “Your Mirror: Portraits Drawn from the ICP Archive,” grapples with this question. Presented as a dense survey of photographic portraiture that spans from formal daguerreotypes to identification cards, the show marks the first time ICP has mounted an exhibition culled entirely from its archive.
“We can learn a lot about the portraits that we take, the portraits that are not taken and who has the power to make these images,” said ICP’s director of exhibitions and collections, Erin Barnett, during a press preview.
Curated by Barnett and Claartje van Dijk, the show, which features 117 works, is neatly grouped into nine sections: family, labor, war, social change, self-presentation, identification, celebrity, self-portraiture and appropriation. Throughout the exhibition, portraits hang in clusters that speak to their similarities and differences.
In celebrity, for example, a portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald standing on a lawn holding a rifle hangs directly above a photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting the coffin of his father, President John F. Kennedy. The juxtaposition joins the two portraits in space, placing them in direct conversation with one another to draw out their shared history.
“Many aspects of contemporary political, economic, social and cultural life are actually constituted through photographs, not just documented by photographs,” Barnett said. “To that end, we have not sanitized our presentation. There are some difficult works in the collection.”
One such work is a tintype of three white men in blackface, which is placed within the category “self-presentation,” along with photographs of Native American men in traditional dress and P. H. Polk’s “The Boss.”
“Minstrel shows were the most popular form of American entertainment. That’s not to excuse it; there’s just the cultural context — which is incredibly different than the cultural context of medical students and future governors taking these pictures more than a hundred years later than this tintype was taken,” said Barnett, referring to the recent controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
“Portraits and the way we represent ourselves in the world and how we are represented to others have real-world impacts,” Barnett said.
From 19th-century occupational photographs to contemporary portraits of activists, the images in the exhibition tell the story of a culture contending with how it represents itself and how new tools and technologies have changed this process over time.
“We live in a hyper-photographic culture, where we are creating and capturing images of ourselves and others at a rapid pace,” said Barnett in a statement. “With ‘Your Mirror,’ which explores the historic context of portraiture, we aim to gain understanding of the ways in which people made — or didn’t make — decisions about how they were presented for the camera and for society. There couldn’t be a more important time to examine the ways in which photography shapes our ideas about others and ourselves.”