Portrait photography in the 21st century belongs in a special category of its own, but it won’t stay put. On one hand, portraits are now almost unimaginably ubiquitous, from the mug shots and ID photos that attempt to tie individuals to their legal identities to the ever-expanding supply of selfies and Instagrams that seems to increase exponentially by the hour. On the other, there are the glossy portraits created by fine artists and professionals who expend huge amounts of time and energy to realize that one perfect moment that captures the soul — or at least the sex appeal — of the sitter.
Aline Smithson, whose work is on display at wall space gallery through December 31, unquestionably belongs in the latter camp, but she does so with a difference. Although Smithson has worked as a fashion editor at Vogue Patterns magazine and in that capacity has rubbed elbows with most of the top names in fashion photography, her art of portraiture diverges in important ways from even the most creative of high-fashion approaches. She shares the meticulous attention to detail, lighting, and color of her glamour-oriented peers, but, as one can see in both Revisiting Beauty, the current show at wall space, and Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography, the ravishing new monograph she has recently published, there’s more going on in her work than just making other people look good. For Smithson, the role of the portrait lies in uncovering the hidden beauty that appears when the sitter looks back at the photographer in some way. I say “in some way” because it’s not always the obvious direct gaze that reveals Smithson’s connection to her subjects. Many times that look back comes in the form of an allusion, a gesture, or a compositional technique that opens a channel of communication that might not otherwise have been tapped.
For example, in Smithson’s breakthrough series, Arrangement in Green and Black: Portraits of the Photographer’s Mother, the pose, borrowed from James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s famous painting, gets replayed 21 times, with Smithson’s mother attired in a different outlandish costume for each. The cleverness of the conceit connects the subject with her daughter through irony and humor. Mom may not have fully understood why she should pose in a leopard-skin coat, or an Elvis wig, or a straitjacket (!), but like Anna McNeill Whistler, she was clearly devoted to her offspring and willing to put up with whatever she was asked to do, perhaps not so much for the sake of art as for the love of Aline. Likewise, in the exquisite color images that compose Revisiting Beauty, we are often presented with the sitters’ backs rather than their faces, a gesture that combines notes of wistful resignation and trusting intimacy in equal measure. Don’t miss this extravagantly delicious show, and even if you can’t afford to take home a print, consider the monograph, which will dress up any coffee table in the highest style.