Nelson-Atkins exhibit asks: what makes a great photographic portrait?

Pieter Hugo, South African (b. 1976). Annebelle Schreuders (1), 2012. Inkjet print. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 178.2012.1.

In these days of cell phones and Instagram, it might seem like taking photographic portraits is a dying art.

But an exhibit opening August 9 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art shows contemporary photographers are continuing to explore and find different ways of telling the stories of the people they shoot.

Here’s more from the Nelson-Atkins:

About Face: Contemporary Portraiture highlights the breadth and global diversity of portraits produced since 2000.  This exhibition includes 36 works by 29 artists from around the globe: the United States, England, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Iran and South Africa.

“Most of these works were acquired for our permanent collection in the last three years, which is very exciting,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO and Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “They add depth and breadth to our already outstanding photography collection.”

About Face offers a provocative and engaging forum for considering the question: how do we define portraiture today?

“Contemporary photographers approach portraiture from multiple perspectives, and this show reflects that diversity,” said April M. Watson, who co-curated this exhibition with Jane L. Aspinwall (both are Associate Curators of Photography). “Some portraits emphasize the construction of identity through race, gender and class, while others question the relationship between individuality and typology, or the impact of the media on self-presentation. At the core is the relationship between the photographer and his or her subject, and how that interaction translates in the final portrait.” Adds Aspinwall: “Some of these photographers use antiquated processes such as the daguerreotype and tintype to make portraits of contemporary subjects. These historical resonances add an interesting dimension to the show.”

While About Face is on view in its galleries, the Nelson-Atkins will also offer visitors an opportunity to engage with a digital exhibition of recent portraiture, Making Pictures of People, curated by creator Andy Adams. This online presentation will include a robust selection of works from 27 photographers sourced from the web-based photo/arts community. Visitors will be able to access the FlakPhoto exhibition, which will also be publicly accessible to audiences worldwide, via touch screens in the gallery and on mobile devices outside the museum.

Adams, Watson and Aspinwall see this collaboration as a way to broaden the dialogue about how curators, image-makers and audiences engage with contemporary photographic practice.

“Of course, there are differences in the way you curate and look at photography in a museum versus on the Web,” says Adams. “Both platforms provide unique opportunities for presenting work and engaging audiences, and we see them as complementary experiences. We hope this collaboration between the Nelson-Atkins and FlakPhoto makes that point and encourages people to think deeply about contemporary portraiture as well as the rapidly evolving photographic medium.”


  • About Face: Contemporary Portraiture will be on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Aug. 9 through Jan. 9, 2014.

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