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Can the endlessly popular “selfie” – captured on the spot by your handy electronic device and blasted into the stratosphere on all manner of social media – be considered a “self-portrait”? Well, the “self” part may be the same, but the “portrait” part may be harder to define. And why define it anyway? Who cares?
Artists care. And collectors. Lots of people, as it turns out. With so many “selfies” floating around, is the work of fine art photographers being devalued? If you’d like a clear demonstration of the contrast between the common sport of “selfies” and the deeper process of self-portraiture, Panopticon Gallery in Boston’s Kenmore Square has mounted a large group show, “Self-Portraits, Not #Selfies”, on exhibit through March 8, 2015.
Here’s a chance to experience highly creative, thought-provoking and sometimes funny work by eleven notable photographers: Stephen Sheffield, Alicia Savage, Alexa Torre, Bill Franson, Agnieszka Sosnowska, Laura Knapp, Greg Norstrom, Cori DiPietro, Jenna Stebbins, Orianna Reardon, and Meredith Abenaim. The variety of expression is invigorating.
Probably the most apparent hallmark of the self-portraits on view is the forethought and intention that defines each one. Eons apart from the “selfies” that largely serve to mark the location and cohorts at an event or party, these well-crafted photographs are idea-based. From personal questions of what defines the self to individual struggles against a harsh environment, all of these self-portraits are pre-meditated explorations of deeper psychological and philosophical issues. Your iPhone may be sophisticated, but there’s no app for that.
Physicality and size mark another gulf between electronic “selfies” and photographic self-portraits. We may have acclimated to viewing things on tiny cell phone screens, but there’s no substitute for the impact of an actual physical object, the print. The photographs in this show boast the time and craftsmanship that went into them, from gelatin silver prints made in a traditional wet darkroom, to alternative processes like platinum and transfer printing, to the imaginative image editing and production that defines exquisite pigment printing.
My favorite aspect of this show is the inspiring inventiveness of the artists. Serious introspection and satire, realism and surrealism, distortion and abstraction, all bring the idea of self into different realms. Alicia Savage’s magical realism takes flight in stunning color fabrications cloaked in mystery. Cori DiPietro (feature image) orchestrates elaborate satires of the ways in which women have been portrayed in movies and Alexa Torre uses bold B&W imagery to explore the glorification of cultural icons.
DiPietro also presents a series of small platinum prints, delicately drawing parallels between women and nature. Laura Knapp’s dizzying perspectives of herself are endowed with ethereal energy. Meredith Abenaim’s abstract and photo-realistic portraits shine with spirituality. Orianna Reardon pairs her transfer prints with poetic musings and manipulates color instant prints to mine clashes between perception and reality.
Greg Norstom plumbs questions of individualism in his witty and powerful multiple-frame works. In strikingly composed B&W abstractions of his shadow, Bill Franson comments on the ideas of absence and presence. Agnieszka Sosnowska’s B&W self-portraits pit her against a physically and metaphorically harsh environment. Stephen Sheffield’s monochromes explore the psychology of “everyman’s” place in society, while Jenna Stebbins satirizes the role of “everywoman”, represented solely by her gorgeous gams, in wonderfully absurd scenes.
Does this mean that all “selfies” should be relegated to the trash heap of pop culture? Of course not. Creative minds always find ways to utilize a new technology and make it their own, elevating the playing field in the process. I prefer to think that the plethora of images inundating our airwaves is actually preparing the public palette for more adventurous imagery. So perhaps there’s a silver lining here. Maybe even a gelatin silver lining, my favorite kind.
For information about this show, go to: http://www.panopticongallery.com/exhibitions/
Feature Image: “Cake Psycho, 2014”, archival pigment print by Corinne DiPietro (courtesy of the artist and Panopticon Gallery, Boston)