I curated this exhibition as a part of my comprehensive exams, that is, in response to “comprehensive” literature on identity studies in art history, with emphases upon photography and media theory. At first the task of producing a small exhibition based upon a corpus of texts seemed too cumbersome to undertake, especially as someone who has never curated a show alone. But as I began to peruse artworks that I thought might confederate contemporary media concerns and identity issues, there eventually emerged a set of questions regarding the conceptual stability of singularity, specificity, and totality—and their importance to likeness, identity, and representation in photographic portraiture. My brief for this project could not have been to uncover rules of contemporary identity formation, to manifest an essence of some specific identity, nor to survey some range of identities through different lenses, such as race, place, queerness, poverty, or even intersectionality. The scope had to be both wide enough to tend to a vast body of literature, and narrow enough to constitute an interesting exhibition in a contemporary gallery. With the requirement of “comprehensiveness” hanging over my head, I could seek neither a summation of theoretical knowledge, nor a totalizing view of the relevance of identity theories to contemporary photography. Instead, a precise and carefully conceived intervention by images into ideas was necessary. That is, I had to choose good works of art, bring them to Pittsburgh, and arrange them in a way that, as an exhibition, would visually and spatially reveal my serious engagement with contemporary theories of both photography and identity.
The history of contemporary photography bears thorough critique of any assumed natural affinity between photography and likeness, or true correspondence with the actual appearance of the world. As early as the 1980s, Thomas Ruff proved that no amount of clarity, closeness, or detail in a portrait allows the viewer access to the “real” person depicted. As recently as June 2015, an exhibition at the Hammer Museum explored the links between composition and contingency in photography, and their impacts upon our beliefs in the relationship between likeness, reality, and photographic images. Neither the idea that identity may clearly and ultimately be seen, nor the idea that identity is fixed or persistent, is plausible enough—let alone interesting enough—to drive an exhibition. An impactful argument engaging contemporary photography and identity requires the assumption that what digital photographs make available is more readily structured by visual and discursive ideas about identity than by reality. Advancing a critical understanding of identity and its construction by and with contemporary photography involves challenging certain conventions of portraiture, and exploring deficiencies and exceptions within these conventions.
As I was searching the country for artworks for this show, I noticed that works which gave me the most pause were those in which doubling, repetition, simultaneity, or disguise forced me to accommodate multiple, sometimes conflicting, impressions of visual characteristics, subjects, or forms. The simple question guiding Sit Still thus became: what happens when we see subjects doubled in photographs? I selected artworks based upon their use of visual and conceptual splitting and doubling to explore the effects of duplication and relationality upon portraiture’s capacities to reveal, conceal, and repeat identities through conflations of similarity and difference, sequence and co-presence, contingency and individual being. Some literally depict their subjects twice (Sean Fader, Senalka McDonald, Stacey Tyrell); some partially mask or disguise the multiple presence of a single sitter (Zhiwan Chueng, Sally Dennison, Nabiha Khan, Tyrell); some stretch a single identity across two or more subjects, constructing a situation in which identities are perceived as relational counterparts or as composites (Fader, Darren Lee Miller, Mat Thorne).
Seeing Identity Twice
It can be said that the primal task of the portrait is to double. Loosely defined as a representation of a person, a portrait reiterates its human referent. A good portrait may be called a likeness, meaning we believe it truthfully resembles its sitter. And when considering portraits to be mediators of identity, we can easily accommodate multiplicities—multiple images bearing partial, conflicting, or dynamic aspects of a person—that may exist within social media, personal albums, state archives, or corporate databases. Yet multiplicity is not in conflict with our belief in likeness. What, then, is the conceptual importance of singularity to the relationships we may posit between a portrait and its subject? How do we handle seeing doubles? Multiples? Incomplete parts?
As a group, works in this show form lines of sight across a history of photographic portraits, calling attention to the portrait’s trajectory as a site of identity construction, deconstruction, or display; the traditional conventions and restrictions of the portrait studio; and the history of the portrait as both an aesthetic and an identifying genre. In contrast to recent photography exhibitions exploring themes such as marginalized identities; the roles of communications technologies, media, and surveillance; the paradigm of “the network;” and capitalistic determination of image generation and exchange, this exhibition’s thematic focus minimizes these very compelling issues in order to broaden the view of certain visual and philosophical subtleties of identity and representation within contemporary art. By distinguishing a body of contemporary photography in which the practice or concept of doubling advances our critical understanding of the relationship between identity, identification, and contemporary art, Sit Still both initiates a conversation that engages my “comprehensive” academic concerns, and makes visible a justification for leaving certain issues or approaches to the side.
Photography’s history as a technology of identification—or, the use of photography in various sciences of identification—is a history of the perceived relationship between the seen and the true, and of arguments positing the camera as a mediator of the world “as it is.” In the nineteenth century, the camera was a technology of unprecedented visual accuracy for disciplines such as criminology, ethnography, anthropology, psychiatry, and medicine. The collection of precise, visual data and its employment within some contrived, organizational method—for example, data sets composed of photographs and exact measurements of criminals’ body parts—amounted to unique sets of information corresponding with single individuals, which could thus be used to identify a person conclusively, should he be arrested again. Likewise, the cultural and physiological particulars of a colonized or marginalized people could be documented by the camera, allowing viewers to amass encyclopedic knowledge of the identifying features of, for example, North American Indians (Edward S. Curtis), and become connoisseurs of their physical characteristics and cultural ways.
The verb “to identify” means, in situations such as these, to prove the singularity and specificity of an individual person, or to validate his or her correspondence with a type. However, identity was only thus seen in photographs under certain methodological and discursive constraints. The deployment of photography within objective algorithms of identification seemed, by its efforts at specificity, to abandon, perhaps ironically, both the idea that identity corresponds with some subjective idea of who a person “really is,” and the conviction that inner qualities can manifest to the camera. In this way, the idea of individuality became dependent upon one’s designation within social and scientific systems of types, categories, and stations rather than a rich understanding of a true and total human subject. For example, the reproduction of Curtis’ “Hamatsa Emerging from the Woods” (1914) from the tenth volume of The North American Indian depicts a shaman possessed by supernatural power. The theatricality of this image not only serves to establish vast cultural differences between the exotic, “cannibalistic” shaman and Curtis’ intended viewers (upper- and middle-class American consumers), it also suggests that Curtis’ Hamatsa is performing the ritual for the camera. The frontality, proximity, and cropping belie the shaman’s candidness, or the “authenticity” of his possession, and instead make clear that the shaman is re-creating, or performing, possession by spirits under Curtis’ direction. Like an actor, we see both the person and his character. This act of doubling obscures access to the shaman’s individuality, while at the same time ensures his legibility within Curtis’ presentation of North American Indian identity more broadly.
Such practice of performance before the camera has been central to the genre of photographic portraiture since its invention, which points to a more obvious photographic history: that of the prolific, commercial production of portraits since the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839. The early portrait photographer’s studio was a space of convention and prestige, where signifiers of class, age, and occupation served as backdrops for individual likenesses. The highly popular activity of collecting carte de visite portraits throughout the 1850s and 60s testifies to the status of such objects in Euroamerican society, and to the importance of having one’s likeness made—and exchanged—in order to make visible one’s particular station in and contribution to a social or familial order. Childhood, marriage, death, and various other rites of passage were documented in the studio to attest to changes in life, to affirm the continuity of an individual’s being over time, and to establish lineage through visual resemblance and material possession. The carte de visite in this exhibition, produced by the form’s inventor, A. A. E. Disdéri, along with reproductions of rural, Italian studio portraits from the early twentieth century, serve as examples of the rigidity with which personal portraits complied to studio conventions. Furio del Furia, a commercial portraitist in a small, Tuscan town, with no permanent commercial space, recreated the studio in his patrons’ homes, hanging sheets and posing furniture as if to mimic the backdrops of legitimate portrait establishments. Del Furia’s work draws attention to the sincere, though less artistically lofty, historical aims of commercial portrait photography and the importance of conventions to constructing a visual sense of identity within a material exchange system determined by class values. In commercial portraits, though the idea of a person’s real, true, or inner identity is sought and cherished, a sitter’s individuality is dependent upon her ability to stand out within a sea of visual and compositional similarities, while at the same time advancing those similarities as the conventions of a genre.
The sheet or screen behind the sitter, nearly ubiquitous since Disdéri, persists as a defining feature of the portrait. Stacey Tyrell’s “Boadicea” for example, uses a printed backdrop not only to block off spatial depth and construct a narrow visual field parallel to the picture plane, it also situates the sitter’s visage within an expressive syntax of, presumably, her own choosing. However, this syntax is complicated or resisted when “Boadicea” is seen next to “Inghinn,” whose black backdrop is no less limiting of visual space, but much less generous as an orienting aid to seeing the sitter’s expression or identity. Tyrell’s two works are indeed both self-portraits. Yet, this act of doubling is only detectable in the subtle resemblances between each character’s respective facial features. The works not only show women of different ages within different scenes, each image registers a different level of flatness and artificiality. “Inghinn’s” deadpan expression and flawless surface approach the artificial, making her seem more digital invention than photographic performance. An idea, or view, of the artist herself can only be gleaned through looking at two or more portraits in the series (there are three in the show). Furthermore, a sense of Tyrell’s own physical appearance is detached from—or seen in spite of—the conventional attributes that designate these images as portraits. A comparison of the use of convention and deception in the group of self-portraits by Sally Dennison provokes awareness of an odd distinction between visibility and truth, suggesting a cleavage between photographic visibility, composition, and the viewer’s ability to access—or rather, construct—a persistent idea of the artist herself.
Identity as Relation
Thus far, I have discussed portraiture and the some of the historical roots of its relationship with likeness, identity, and representation. An alternative framework for understanding identity that played a role in the conception of Sit Still was drawn from mathematics, which calls identity not the unique specificity of an individual being, but the equation of one thing with another—as in A = B. Despite the fact that applying mathematical thinking to aesthetic material is admittedly problematic, and the fact that my invocation of the most basic mathematical signifier, the equal sign, is perhaps simple-minded, I will briefly argue that the paradigm of the equal sign, the belief that A can be A, and B, B, yet they can also be identical to each other, conceptually informs the strategies of repetition and doubling explored by the works in this show. Simply put, the meaning of the statement A = B relies little upon A or B. It is the equal sign that is the crucial element. We must believe in, beyond question, the functional meaning of the equal sign in order to approach any understanding of the statement A = B. That is to say, A and B are only meaningful in the context of relationship with each other, engaged across the equal sign. Works such as “Pansy” and “Fencing” by Darren Lee Miller, “Alyson and Cait” by Tyrell, and, most challengingly, “Dialogue with Myself #2” by Senalka McDonald make identity inseparable from multiple layers of dialogue—both autonomously (within the image) and inclusively of the viewer. In these works, while concerns surrounding performance and conventionality affect how we read each image, dynamism and relationality complicate their address to the viewer and the stability of any impression of identity. Though it may be richer (and, more to the point) to refer here instead to items in my bibliography discussing theories of identity formation, individuality, etc., the purpose of referring to the mathematical meaning of identity is to show more simply that fixedness, specificity, and singularity are not required concepts for ideas of identity or identity construction, and instead that variability and mutual influence enable the conceptual viability of an identity.
In McDonald’s doubled self-portrait, for example, we see two girls sitting on the floor in a narrow niche. They instantly read as twins, due mostly to their matching, solid-red outfits and the consistency of their evenly toned skin. Even their shoes, hairstyles, and facial features match. Yet, we register enough difference in their facial expressions, or is it rather their presences before the camera, to get the feeling that they are two separate counterparts—perhaps two sides of the same coin, but distinct from each other nonetheless. The tangle of limbs looks disembodied and tends to deconstruct the figures, abstracting the legs, even as their visual consistency and definition ensure their persistence and wholeness. This element of abstraction also works to identify the tangle of legs with the surface of the photograph, causing an ambivalent tension between flat, digital construction and living bodies. It is as though the two figures posit a rhetorical equal sign between themselves, and at the same time push it to its limits.
In sum, the works in Sit Still represent a group of contemporary artists that use portraiture to explore the ways in which photography is currently engaged in problems of visualizing subjects and identities. Through tactics of doubling, splitting, and masking, these artworks complicate concepts of singularity and relationality. As an exhibition, Sit Still makes the assertion that doubles, multiples, and repetition are viable frameworks within contemporary art for advancing our understanding of photography’s relationships with identity and likeness.