DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Picturing the People

Dennis Hopper
When it comes to creating a portrait, artists have long been constrained by time, place, and subject. But, at the turn of the century, photographer Robert Weingarten, one of the earliest adapters to digital photography, was intent on breaking those constraints.

"I had to allow myself to break from the usual and the historic boundaries of portraiture and utilize today's technology to redefine what a portrait can be," Weingarten said. "I wanted to know if you could transcend time, place, and subject."

The spectacular results of Weingarten's efforts are now on display in the exhibit Pushing Boundaries: Robert Weingarten at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center. The exhibit features 16 of Weingarten's metaphorical collage portraits, which he calls translucent composites.

Probably the most unsual aspect of the work is that none of the portraits include a visual likeness of  its subject. Instead, Weingarten lets the subject's interests speak for him or her.

The artist began with a group of recognizable subjects such as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, author Joyce Carol Oates, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. "I asked myself would I know who (these people) are in 50 years? Would I know what they did or understand that what they did was important?"

Weingarten then asked each of his subjects to send him a list of things that were important to them and made them who they are. For example, baseball great Hank Aaron responded with a list of 4 items:
  • the city of Atlanta
  • baseball
  • fishing
  • the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation
Hank Aaron
After figuring out what pictures would best capture the importance of the items on the list, Weingarten then traveled around the country to shoot a series of photos which, when completed, he would alter and arrange into a large collage format.

"Although the person is not physically seen, I wanted the work to be a summing up of personal and public life experiences," Weingarten said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As people, we know a lot about a lot of things. But sometimes the subject nearest to us - ourselves - remains a mystery. Weingarten's starting question - what makes you you? - is a question we all need to ponder from time to time. Preparing a list of what we value is a good place to start. The next time you have a few minutes you might want to try to compose such a list. Here is the one actor Dennis Hopper submitted which you can use as an example:
  • the motorcycle from "Easy Rider"
  • golf clubs
  • director's chair
  • his photography
  • his painting
  • a camera
  • an Andy Warhol painting with the bullet holes Hopper made in a drug-induced frenzy
  • cigars
You can definitely have fun with this simple exercise. And you might be surprised at what you learn.

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