Review: "Making Pictures of People"

© Shen Wei, Yemi, 2007

Making Pictures of People is an online exhibition of contemporary portrait photography produced since 2000 curated by Andy Adams of FlakPhoto. It features 27 photographers who work in long-form serial portraiture.

It is paired with the show About Face: Contemporary Portraiture, co-curated by Jane L. Aspinwall and April M. Watson, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,  Kansas City, Missouri. About Face will be on display until January 19, 2014. Museum visitors can access the FlakPhoto exhibition via touchscreens in the gallery.

Making Pictures of People has been reviewed previously by Colin Pantall, by An Xiao on Hyperallergic and Adams was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio about the project.

© Matt Eich, Jabari, Quan & Ellen, 2010

Adams continues evolving the browser gallery proposal in Making Pictures of People that he started exploring in Looking at the Land (reviewed here). Each site page of the gallery exhibition presents a single photographer including their biography, a selection of approximately twenty of their images as well as a short six question interview conducted by Adams. The photographers were culled from over 10,000 submissions.

The browser gallery is professionally produced, seamless, and generally follows the layout of Looking at the Land. The sideways click-through presentation mimics the sequential experience of the gallery exhibition. The photographer biography and their responses to Adams' six questions are posted below the photograph. The photographer's name, image title, and year the photograph was taken appear to the upper left of the image.

© Jess T. Dugan, Betsy, 2013

This review will focus on the exhibition itself, not on the photographers individually because, while there are a lot fewer photographers featured here than in Looking at the Land, there are just too many to consider them with any depth and give them the attention they deserve.

Adams' "About the Exhibition" introductory text places emphasis on both the online experience and on the interviews. The first paragraph of his text presents questions surrounding and excitement about the advent on the online exhibition. He follows later in the text by saying, "I'm interested in expanding the notion of the browser as an exhibition space and the emphasis here is online accessibility, not physical photographic presence."

The online experience is well thought through. It's easy to navigate, clean, and does what a good platform for showing artwork should do – stays out of the way so that we can engage the work directly, enhancing the experience of the images by minimizing its presence.

The image selections per photographer are also generally strong, but – inevitably - duplicate what is easy to find online on the individual photographer's sites as well as elsewhere.

This is the flip side to the advantages of creating a browser gallery that makes the exhibit accessible from anywhere. The viewer can also - with a couple clicks - see the same images presented in the exhibition elsewhere, especially with this particular selection of photographers who are almost entirely pulled from a list of familiar names in the online photography world.

More is needed to create value to the exhibition beyond simply putting all these images in one place and this is where the interviews come in. Adams writes in the introductory text:
We’ve structured the show in a way that foregrounds the photographers' voice — with an emphasis on their ideas, opinions, and experiences. Consider these interviews as you would a gallery talk, an occasion for the artists to share their creative motivations, the way they see the world, and the things that inspire their approach to portrait picture-making. Their images are just one part of the story — their voices add a unique dimension to understanding the work.
The interviews are the main additive value – in terms of what already exists online - of this exhibition.

In contrast to Looking at the Land, which proposed that contemporary landscape photography has evolved from the critical eye towards the landscape held by the photographers of New Topographics into an acceptance by the current generation of photographers "born and raised in suburban sprawl" of the man-made/nature hybrid landscape, Making Pictures of People essentially opts not to interpret, frame, or create any central argument about contemporary portraiture. It instead "explores the breadth and diversity of portrait picture-making today."

It is the photographers themselves through the interviews that answer the questions posed in the introductory exhibition text - "What compels us to look at pictures of people? When is a photographic portrait successful? Does portraiture tell us more about the person sitting for the camera or the image-maker behind the lens?" - and their words that give us a chance to "consider the meaning of photographic portraiture as well as the multiplicity of images that define it."

Similar to Looking at the Land, the photographers presented here represent a specific segment of contemporary practice and an extension of the curatorial vision Adams has refined in his FlakPhoto Collection over the last seven years. There’s a preference for clean images fairly reduced in the number of visual elements in the frame. They are generally well lit, sharp and technically perfect. Medium and large format color photographers predominate; there’s lots of observational work, almost nothing from the studio or conceptual practice or heavy on post-production; most are from the United States and Western Europe; they largely produce projects with concrete unifying themes – touching strangers, Finnish Jewish families, the West Side of Chicago.

My conversation raised about photography becoming a collective practice in relationship to Looking at the Land therefore remains a conversation about this exhibition. This isn't an attempt to reduce the breadth, quality, or individuality of the work presented, but rather to suggest questions on photography as an individual practice as well as to identify the specific curatorial range presented in order to critique it below.

© Betsy Schneider, Hope, 2012

The overall presentation is expert and continues to polish and advance the presentation ideas of Looking at the Land. Adams continues to be at the forefront of the movement of online editors to offline/online hybrid roles to produce exhibitions. He continues to pioneer a vision of the future of exhibitions – flexible, portable, multi-dimensional, across an extended time frame, immaterial.

The change of presentation of the photographs from the traditional print exhibition changes the meaning of the work – format and contextual changes inherently alter the experience and meaning of all imagery. I’d like to see that line of exploration be addressed. What does the change of viewing space actually do to the images and their meaning, above and beyond how it changes the viewing experience of the observer? What does making the images of 27 photographers all the same size, putting them in your hands and allowing you to flip through them at home do to their meaning as a work of art? It’s a question not considered in the texts of this particular exhibition but vital to the online exhibition concept as it is born.

The main change from Looking at the Land is the dropping of a curatorial argument or thesis from the exhibition. The idea that the exhibition "explores the breadth and diversity of portrait picture-making today" is too general to serve as a guiding thesis and, honestly, although the work is almost universally strong, as I said above I don’t see that much variety when thinking of photography in the broadest sense of possible ways of making images.

This, however, frees Adams from trying to pull the work into any sort of historical line of curatorial conversation about portraiture or to explicitly state his arguments on the contemporary state of the union in regards to portrait photography. The lack of a curatorial argument or thesis, while a concern, is actually what makes this exhibit stronger than Looking at the Land. It allows Adams to play to his strengths and stated interests, namely the online experience and an interest in the photographers themselves and their thoughts and experiences making images. It allows him to pick images from favorite individual photographers and ask them questions and leave it at that.

This, in turn, puts Adams into the sort of role played expertly on the FlakPhoto Network in which his skilled neutrality allows him to moderate a conversation forum with lots of, uh, specific personalities. If part of the idea of curating well-known work is to reveal and uncover aspects of that work that we as its audience may not have known or thought about, here Adams allows the interviews – more extended and richer than those from Looking at the Land – to provide this instead of an exhibition thesis.

The selections for this exhibit, as with Looking at the Land, reflect a conservative meditation on contemporary practice. It's overall a very solid, if not unsurprising, series of choices. There is an implicit argument in Making Pictures of People made through the consistencies in the work selected, but it's generally in line with consensus thoughts on some of the best portraiture being made today. The names are familiar and the project serves as a vote of reinforcement of existing ideas of today's best portraitists, not an examination or questioning of those ideas.

While I can't criticize Adams’ selections because not only are they generally strong, they also reflect an aesthetic he has developed and refined over many years on FlakPhoto, I would critically mention that there's equally high quality work being made in South America, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world inline with the Flak aesthetic that has not been selected for this show. Unlike Looking at the Land, there's no reason in the project concept not to search a broader geography for work.

My first impression as I looked through this exhibition was that I’d like to hear Adams make the arguments that are implicit in his selection more explicit and that I would like to see them argued in relationship to the history of portraiture or photography or to our contemporary context.

As I think more about it, however, I think Adams smartly leaves it to others to argue, reframe, and slice and dice his opening "Best of" look at early 21st century portraiture. Not every exhibit needs to be polemical and lots of polemical exhibits get in their own way by forcing arguments. Looking at the Land suffered to a degree from this. Instead Adams uses the exhibit to explore his personal interests and strengths as a curator and in the process advances the concept of the online browser gallery and gives us a rich experience with a strong roster of photographers through his talks with and engagement with them.

© Paul D'Amato, First Lady, Garfield Park Baptist Church, 2009