Exhibition Review: The Shadow Archive - An Investigation into Vernacular Portrait Photography
Review by: Billy Anania
The human face contains many features, and their arrangement defines a person’s physical identity. Portrait photographers have worked with this notion for generations, capturing people for who they really are.
And yet, there is much more to self-representation than simply staring into a dark lens. Expression, posture and demeanor all define the outcome of a shoot. And in this way, the subject wields a great amount of power.
A new photo exhibition in New York examines the progress of this concept from the 1850s to the present. “The Shadow Archive: An Investigation Into Vernacular Portrait Photography” premiered last month, and will be on display until March 31 at The Walther Collection Project Space.
Vernacular photography could best be described as functional and lacking any artistic intention. The Walther Collection curators subvert notions of authority, depicting portrait photographers as documentarians of a wide identity spectrum.
The title comes from a quote by American photographer Allan Sekula, who originally coined the term to describe a complex range of human representation. The “shadow archive,” he claims, is a space in which disparate identities are equalized through juxtaposition.
Selections in the exhibition include daguerreotypes of families, mugshots of California prison inmates from the 1890s, and 1980s yearbook photos from a Midwestern school. Rather than conveying some profound view into the human soul, the photos instead show how the same methods have been employed throughout history to capture an array of subjects, from young children to incarcerated criminals.
These photographs were mostly used for identification purposes, to categorize people through basic characteristics. Class, location, body type and ethnicity become forms of classification. This is different from classical notions of portraits, in which a subject is depicted in resplendent royalty. As such, the exhibition questions contemporary definitions of portraiture, and how these photographs compare.
“The Shadow Archive” is one of five planned exhibitions over an 18-month period. The show was organized by Brian Wallis with assistance from Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Felix Ho Yuen Chan and Paulina Choh.