Mpls Photo Center celebrates the portrait

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Hugo

Archival Inkjet Print

Joseph Holmes, New York

An exhibition on display all this month at the Mpls Photo Center invites viewers to ponder what exactly makes a compelling portrait. Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator David Little was asked to jury the show. Little says while the portrait is as old as art itself, photography excels at the task.

No other medium offers such a direct sense of human form and psyche. And no other medium gives us the uncanny sense of being there in time and space with the subject depicted. Our vast collective archives of pictures of friends, family, and acquaintances are proof of this resilient power of the photographic image.

Little whittled down more than 1200 submissions from 232 photographers using a technique that was at once both methodical and instinctive. His first choice amongst them all is the image you see above – “Hugo” by Joseph Holmes. Taking second prize was the work of a Minnesota photographer – Don Clark’s “Young Kate in Sheep Fank.”

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Young Kate in Sheep Fank

Archival Inkjet Print

Don Clark, Minnesota

Little says a good portrait must excel at three different levels: form, history and content. A good photographer knows how to use the tools of his or her trade both on location and once they’re manipulating the photograph in the studio. This is reflected not just in the quality of the print, but in the framing of the subject. As for history, Little says people who are immersed in photography are familiar with certain images that really define key moments in the evolution of the art form.

What ends up happening is you have this repertoire of portraits which are more or less the history of the image. Is the photographer conscious of that history when they’re taking the image, and do they try to distinguish themselves from that history, or do they end up falling into old patterns and cliches?

Finally, Little says, “content” is what really sets a masterful portrait apart. In this entire exhibition there is not a single movie star or major political figure. How does a photographer not just capture a person’s face, but also manage to create an image that speaks to people who have no idea who they’re looking at?

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It’s a Matter of Perspective, Mr President

Archival Inkjet Print

Lydia Panas, Pennsylvania

In the above picture by Lydia Panas, we don’t know who these boys are, but the picture invites us to compare the two, and to note the differences in their expressions. The one on the left seems closed and guarded – his bangs almost cover his eyes, and he stands in what appears to be almost military attention. The boy on the right however, is relaxed and open – open eyes, open mouth, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. Are they brothers? Friends? How will the difference in their stances shape their futures?

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Mother & Daughter Remember 911

Archival Inkjet Print

Tom Olmscheid, Minnesota

In Tom Olmsheid’s image (above) the power comes in large part from the color, says Little. Bright red dominates, as does the repeating pattern of the American flag.

It has a little bit of Norman Rockwell in it, but is also has this seriousness about it. There’s a kind of beauty and purity in their look. They’re very American, too.

Little says you need to be careful to distinguish between an image that is truly a great photograph, and one that takes advantage of our sentimentality. For instance in both Olmsheid’s image and the image of the military man below, our sense of patriotism is called to the fore. Is this man returning from combat? If so, does he feel lost in this crowd of civilians? At the same time, he seems to embody the calm in the storm, the strong center in a world that’s otherwise out of focus.

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Untitled/At Sea At Night

Archival Inkjet Print

Kristoffer Axen, New York

Little admits that sometimes he can’t even define what it is about an image that really speaks to him. In the case of the second prize winner (Young Kate in Sheep Fank), he said it simply succeeded at taking him to a completely different place. In “Josephine” (below) it’s the amazing composition – the woman’s gangly legs and arms, her long fingers and toes.

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Josephine

Digital Chromogenic Print

Joseph Johnson, Missouri

Josephine looks almost like a squid, and both her gaze and all the energy is focussed on those toenail clippers. It’s a fun picture, and it also gives you a sense of what this gal might be like through a very ordinary and intimate moment. But again you don’t need to know her to appreciate the image.

The Mpls Photo Center’s portrait exhibition is on display throughout the month of January, with an opening reception on Friday, January 8. Admission is free.