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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

Portraits of a Nation: What the National Portrait Gallery Can Teach Americans About Americans

Portraits of a Nation: What the National Portrait Gallery Can Teach Americans About Americans

By Miabelle Salzano 

David Ho by Gregory Heisler Chromogenic print on polyester base (Ilfochrome) 1996 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time Magazine  © Gregory Heisler

David Ho

by Gregory Heisler

Chromogenic print on polyester base (Ilfochrome)

1996

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time Magazine 

© Gregory Heisler

In my years of dating, I’ve come to learn that relationships are all merely superficial affairs; surface encounters that hold your attention long enough to get you through the cold winters or the steamy summers, but often fizzle unremarkably. Once or twice you’ll be involved in one that’s fuller than all the others; that rejuvenates your heart and then rips it wide open, dragging out all your deeper, darker truths and carving a permanent space for itself within them. In time the feeling turns from ache to appreciation as you realize everything you’ve learned from it. It goes on to affect you and everyone around you for the rest of your life. These are the great love affairs.

Composing a portrait is one of the greatest love affairs. There must be spontaneity in order to find a way of visually portraying the subject’s personality, passion for the process to find the perfect shot. But above all there must be trust between the photographer and the sitter, for both must be willing to bear their souls, offer their artistic visions for critique, and collaborate to make a single product. While the goal is to be true to the sitter, portraits often accentuate only a person’s best qualities. That is why the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. honored five notable Americans at its second American Portrait Gala on Sunday, November 19 with the "Portrait of a Nation Prize." The honorees included former Secretary of State Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, HIV/AIDS researcher David D. Ho, M.D., dancer, director and choreographer Bill T. Jones, film director and producer Spike Lee, and award winning actress Rita Moreno, all of whom have photographic portraits in the museum’s collection which were taken at central moments in their prolific careers.

Madeline Albright by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Inkjet print 2005 (printed 2016) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Eugene Eidenberg © 2005, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Madeline Albright

by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Inkjet print

2005 (printed 2016)

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Eugene Eidenberg

© 2005, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Rita Moreno by ADÁL Gelatin silver print 1984 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © 1984 Adál

Rita Moreno

by ADÁL

Gelatin silver print

1984

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

© 1984 Adál

The title of the award, “Portrait of a Nation Prize,” remains true to form. These five honorees make up the greatest contributions to politics, the arts, entertainment, and science in modern American history. Their inspiring legacies are what Americans would and should want to be remembered for, and are much needed beacons of light in the overwhelming darkness of rising hate crime rates, racism, and biases that are also regrettable parts of America’s portrait. While these things shouldn’t be honored, they shouldn’t be ignored either.

Spike Lee by Jesse Frohman Inkjet print on paper c. 1990 (printed 2014) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © 1999, Jesse Frohman

Spike Lee

by Jesse Frohman

Inkjet print on paper

c. 1990 (printed 2014)

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

© 1999, Jesse Frohman

The Portrait of a Nation prize honors those who deserve recognition for how they've positively influenced American culture and inspired others to do the same. The portrait that this prize paints manages to unconsciously accept the darker aspects of the American portrait as well. It not only acknowledges what the honorees have done in defense of oppressed peoples through their art, as in the cases of Jones and Lee, but it also recognizes women, immigrants, and minorities with this national honor, in the cases of Albright, Ho, and Moreno. In the face of the ever changing attitude towards minority groups like women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community, this prize exemplifies those who have used their position and/or art to unite our nation, under God, indivisibly, with liberty and justice for all.

The National Portrait Gallery is home to a fully rounded persona of America. Like all great love affairs, there are portraits that pain you to accept as part of history and portraits that make you painfully nostalgic. To view what is on display in Washington D.C. is an opportunity for America to look at its darkest truths and form the greatest love affair of all, the one with themselves.

Bill T. Jones by Robert Mapplethorpe Gelatin silver print on paper 1985 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Bill T. Jones

by Robert Mapplethorpe

Gelatin silver print on paper

1985

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

Visit the event website here.

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