About face

The Contemporary revisits the art of portraiture

There couldn't be a better time for the re-evaluation of portraiture provided in the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Face Time: Portraiture by Contemporary Artists. As more and more soul-baring is done through photography, film and video, the question arises: Are we becoming more honest and self-revealing or just more adept at packaging ourselves for the camera's eye?

That is just one of the many questions raised in Face Time's cogent survey of portraiture from vernacular works of the '30s and '40s, through the conceptual girl-portraiture practiced by Yale-educated, Atlanta-based photographers like Angela West and Catherine Cobb.

Catherine Cobb's revisionist color photographs of women not only reconfigure portraiture's classic head-and-shoulders view, but they undermine a common photographic strategy of making women into objects of ocular delectation. While feminist scholars often speak of the visual image's continued use to make women into passive objects of beauty, Cobb's subjects seem to willfully defy that treatment by denying access to their innermost selves. With their heads turned away from the camera or their eyes closed, these women avoid the camera's controlling, penetrating view.

Cobb's images assert the inwardness of being female, of living inside oneself, in imagination and the literal inside of the home. In one such lovely and painful image, a bedridden elderly woman is glimpsed through her bedroom window. The darkness of the room where she lies is in sharp, moody contrast to the sunny outside where creeping roses grow around her home's vinyl siding and life proceeds without her.

Sheila Pree's photographs of black men with eyes closed and mouths open, elaborate gold-capped teeth displayed, use a similar device of obscuring identity. But where the hidden faces in Cobb's portraits gives her subjects power over how they are represented, power is stripped away in Pree's technique of shooting her subjects, bathed in a soothing blue light, with their eyes closed. These black men, emblematic of power and muscle and might, are rendered tender and dreamy, caught in a childlike rapture. The display of their tough-guy gold teeth becomes touched with whimsy, moving from a baring of fangs to an intimate access to self.

In highlighting vernacular photographs from two Atlanta collections, Face Time also displays a contemporary interest in found photographs and amateur work. Embraced for its "authenticity" and revelations about another time or culture, such amateur work is also a refreshing break from photography's conceptual concerns.

From Arkansas portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer to Atlanta African-American photographer Ellie Weems, that interest in resurrected portraiture can also be seen in Face Time's inclusion of work from 1955-1957 by Seydou Keita, a self-taught Mali portrait photographer. Keita's portraits of Bamako residents wearing eccentric combinations of native jewelry, robes and headgear often alongside Western business suits, wristwatches and surfer-style sunglasses invest these sitters with a remarkable sense of self-possession and mystery. It is impossible not to speculate and wonder about these lives, especially about the mysterious relationships between the couples and trios of men and women who posed for Keita.

Similar questions are inspired by Angela West's classic head-and-shoulders portraits of 16-year-old girls from her Dahlonega hometown, where aspects of dress, jewelry, makeup and posture inspire myriad musings about the lives of these young girls. One of the most fascinating insights of the series is how subtly the girls indicate personality and social status by either playing the well-behaved good girl and sitting primly for their photograph, or allowing a truer picture of themselves to emerge beneath their fancy prom dresses and jewelry. What West has captured is young girls engaged in the process of "becoming" — either masterful in their masquerade of proper feminine behavior or openly defying the social demand of civilized femininity.

The least successful work in Face Time tries so desperately to convey the photographer's agenda that the subjects of the photographs become lost in the shuffle. Such is the case with the epically scaled images of South Africans taken by Zwelethu Mthethwa, which, at least in this slim offering of work, profess to treat the lingering poverty created by apartheid. They end up using their impoverished black subjects like cardboard props in some anthropological mission.

Also problematic are Bernadette Humphreys' black-and-white portraits of the citizens of her South Carolina hometown, which the photographer has divided by race onto separate sides of a gallery wall. Playing into almost every conventionalized vision of Southerners as some kind of lost-in-time, sexed-up swamp thangs, such work illustrates how too much intervention on the photographer's part can strip the identities of his/her subjects and leave symbols in place of real people.