Few things attract our attention more than the face of another human.
Familiar and mysterious at the same time, it's a perennial subject in art, spawning more images over the centuries than any other subject.
With the invention of photography in the late 1830s, the popularity and accessibility of the portrait grew still more, and Americans — in particular — embraced this brand new way of capturing the human face early on.
No other nation adopted photography so quickly and completely, in fact, or extended its reach so broadly across the social spectrum that — within a very short time — virtually everyone who wanted to could have their picture taken.
Our peculiarly democratic love affair with the camera makes up only part of the charm, however, found in the
's newest photography exhibit. Equally provocative are the ways that more than 70 images from different time periods, walks of life and levels of fame blend and collide, combining to form a rich if often chaotic group snapshot of our national character.
But what could be more vital and diverse— and quintessentially American, too — than hanging a portrait of
with such unlikely companions as an Apache Indian couple, an unidentified
farmer in overalls, renowned painter
and punk rock icon
— not to mention the black cleaning woman immortalized by photographer
' in his flag-draped 1942 portrait "American Gothic"?
"I wanted to make you think about people. I wanted to make you think about photography — I wanted you to think about portraits," Chrysler chief curator Jefferson Harrison says.
"And if I'd had more space, I could have gone on and on, creating all sorts of juxtapositions."
Drawn completely from the Chrysler's nationally known photography collection, "Portraying a Nation: American Portrait Photography, 1850-2100" ranges from the pioneering daguerreotype to the contemporary digital photo.
It also arranges and then explores the images according to several themes, including "Friends and Family," "I Am What I Do," "My Message is My Meaning" and "Joiners and Loners."
From the beginning here, however, one of the primary attractions is the individual story embedded in each portrait.
Sometimes it's found in the subject's face or figure, as in
's heroic 1951 studio shot of a muscular, tool-laden tree pruner. And sometimes — as in George Tice's evocative 1984 portrait of an elderly barber sitting alone within an even older shop — it's told by the details and atmosphere of the surrounding environment.
Still, Harrison's themes frequently provide us with unusually fertile cues, enabling viewers to add related images up one by one into an unexpectedly revealing and resonant kind of meaning.
Consider how three vintage daguerreotypes compare to one another, then how they relate to some of the other images gathered in "Friends and Family."
Two smiling, well-dressed children from the 1850s inhabit the first of these images, presenting a charming picture of a brother protecting his much younger sister. Two young women with bright white collars, full flowing dresses and pulled-back
stand arm-in-arm in another.
In the third, however, two freemen of color gaze confidently at the viewer, surprising us as much with the stylish cut of their suits and the fashionable sweep of their hair as their slavery-era bravado. But they're merely the first unexpected image that asks us to reevaluate any traditional notions about friends, family and the past.
Sal Lopes' penetrating 1991 portrait of "Buddies – Thom and Alan," for example, pairs a feeble, AIDs-stricken man and his defiant companion in a way that will make you think twice about your definition of kinship. And Frank A. Rinehart's exotic 1898 frontier portrait of an Apache Indian man and his wife captures a gesture of affection that's both simple and universal.
Don't miss Ernest C. Withers' dramatic shot of a 1968 civil rights march, where hundreds of stalwart black men stand shoulder to shoulder across a street, each holding a sign saying, "I Am A MAN."
Then there's John Vachon's 1941 portrait of a bedraggled yet still smiling Depression-era mom as she looks down on two beds stuffed full with children.
This is what people mean when they say, "Great picture!"
Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him at Facebook.com/dpentertainment
Want to go?
"Portraying a Nation: American Portrait Photography, 1850-2100"
Chrysler Museum of Art, 245 W. Olney Road, Norfolk
Through March 27