BOOK REVIEW: Self & Others by Aline Smithson
Aline Smithson’s Self & Others: Portrait as Autobiography is a monograph in three parts of over 120 images from The Magenta Foundation. The sequence of the book depicts the artist’s evolution with pleasing clarity. The black and white photographs lead into hand-painted tableaus which no doubt influence the Technicolor rainbows of her later colour photographs. What remains intact is Smithson’s application of cultural motifs that revolve around the world of celebrity, glamour, and theatrical performance. Smithson describes working in a darkroom as assuming an “altered state of being.” An appropriate phrase to apply to this artist’s oeuvre.
The book is essentially a tomb of storytelling. It makes us question the genre of portrait photography, the manipulative effects of fiction, and how Smithson’s autobiography works as the foundation for these images. Her writings in the short introductions of each section provide an insight into the influences that spur her authorial decisions.
Smithson’s early black and white images show delightful hints of the themes she tackles in her later periods. The image “Cement Ball” inspires thoughts of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” A young girl’s legs, her feet situated in that familiar V, stands atop a cement sphere half submerged in a pond. Diane Arbus’ “Identical Twins” is referenced in Smithson’s “Sisters.” The striking image “Hood” seems to reimagine the universally known portrait by Steve McCurry. A ski mask obscures the face of Smithson’s subject highlighting a single, piercing eye, as the haunting eyes of McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” does. These examples are a few of the many moments where Smithson pulls from various cultural wells – historical and contemporary, journalistic and fine art – to inform her photography.
The portraiture is unexpected, considering many of the subjects are faceless. This is literal in her early employment of masks, and in the decision to frame a body without its head. The cover photograph reflects this exactly. A hand mirror is held up to obscure the face of a woman in a teal dress against deeper blue curtains. The mark of a red nail on the finger curled around the mirror’s handle sets off the blue sea of satin and drape.
Image above: ©Aline Smithson, 'Daisies and Red Nails' from 'Hollywood at Home,' 2015 / Courtesy Of The Magenta Foundation
In her later periods, this skewing of identity works metaphorically. A person is often used to reflect a cultural trope – a familiar identity posited in a familiar position, as in her series “Hollywood at Home.” In “Daisies and Red Nails” a young woman dons a swimming cap, her lips and nails painted red. She grips the edge of the pool with eyes closed serenely. She is lit by sunshine. In “Black Lace and Red Curls,” a woman with tumbling, Hayworth hair lounges across a bed. Her hand extends through the depth of field to touch a blurred rotary phone.
Smithson’s use of color is extraordinary – no doubt a nod to her background as a painter. Her work with hand-painted photographs utilizes color to support, if not enhance, the story she aims to tell – as in the wistful, geisha-esque tableaus of “Recreating History.” In the case of “Arrangement in Green and Black: Portrait of the Photographer’s Mother,” Smithson assumes the character of James McNeill Whistler through reimagining the 1871 painting of his mother. Smithson’s own mother is posed in over twenty ensembles. The painting in the left corner enters a dialogue with her mother’s costume. She is Elvis, a ballerina, a bear eyeing a wall-mounted fish.
Image above: ©Aline Smithson, '#14' from 'Arrangement in Green and Black: Portrait of the Photographer's Mother,' 2015 / Courtesy Of The Magenta Foundation
In her most recent project “Revisiting Beauty,” Smithson’s greatest themes come together in a subtle display of exquisite portraiture. They are neither overt nor obvious, arranging themselves in an interplay of color and costume which complement their subjects, as traditional portraiture aims to do. The subjects are on the cusp of womanhood. They are portrayed confidently, elegantly, as much empowered in their own skin as they are assuming characters of different times and places. Smithson’s depictions of youth as it ripens are reflected in the vibrant colors of costumes and backgrounds, in the slice of a pink watermelon and the orange of held kumquats. And most masterfully, in the alighted freshness captured in each face.