For Kalamazoo Gazette, 10-17-10
Every portrait tells a tale
National Geographic show displays its celebrated images
The 52 powerful photos in the show opening Oct. 30 at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, “In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits,” fall essentially into one of two categories: aware and unaware.
Among the seemingly unaware subjects that will be in the exhibit is B. Anthony Stewart’s 1941 portrait of a young woman in traditional Crete costume, absent-mindedly fingering coin-like ornaments hanging languidly around her neck.
Another is Esther Bubley’s 1943 photo that shows a mother — clearly tired, her eyes staring off into space — cradling a sleeping infant while waiting on a bench in a Greyhound Bus terminal. Sitting next to her is a bonneted young girl, mother’s big purse on her lap, kicking her heels in impatience — her eyes point heavenward.
“People tend to think of a portrait as when you get dressed up and go down to a studio, where an extroverted young woman or man tries to get you to smile,” says David Curl, photographer, Kalamazoo College adjunct professor of art, and author, co-author or editor of 15 books on photography.
“That’s not what any of the National Geographic portraits are.”
These images — culled from the magazine’s celebrated published work from the early 1900s to the beginning of the 21st century — are in “the gray area between documentary and portrait photography,” Curl continues. “The subject always knows they’re being photographed.”
But in these cases, he says, “the photographer is not as concerned with pleasing the subject, to sell pictures to the subject. He’s concerned with getting at the truth of who that person is.”
Among photos in the “aware” category is Steve McCurry’s famous 1985 image of Sharbat Gulu, taken in a Pakistan refugee camp. The Afgan girl looks directly at the camera, the clear green in her still-hopeful eyes highlighted by the green blouse peeking through the tears in her red shawl.
A similar hopefulness shows in the eyes of the six smiling students of Ashley Hall, a Charleston, S.C., all-girls prep school, in B. Anthony Stewart’s 1939 photo. The rich, varied patterns of their posh dresses can’t be subdued by the busy floral swirls on the school’s gate against which they’re leaning, their fingers clinging and pushing through, like growing flowers of their own.
A more recent shot, from 1971 by Dick Durrance II, depicts a Zulu couple about to begin their hike to market, in Nongoma.
Side by side as in Grant Wood’s 1930 “American Gothic” painting, this man and woman, like the South Carolina girls, also are dressed up. He sports a fedora and sweater vest, she wears a conical hat and purse.
In addition, they, too, are hopeful — their destination is 10 miles away — but they’re also prepared: The husband carries an umbrella, not for rain but in case of attack.
These “are not just pretty pictures,” Curl notes. They can “create a cultural bond, a human connection with people from another culture.”
The KIA wanted to be part of Western Michigan University and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s RACE Exhibit Initiative, and National Geographic agreed to extend the already-completed tour of its “In Focus” show especially for Kalamazoo, explains Vicki Wright, the KIA’s collections and exhibitions director.
This portrait exhibit, “while not specifically about the issues of race, features faces from around the world,” Wright says. The pictures “show how much we’re all alike, no matter what race, religion or culture. They also point out our differences.”
One striking image to be included in the exhibit manages to do both, and touch on the photographer’s talent for being in the right place at the right time: William Albert Allard’s 1982 photo of a young Peruvian boy.
Eduardo, standing at the far right of the image, is crying inconsolably. To the left, a half-dozen white sheep lie motionless in a dirt-brown field.
The family’s sheep had been struck and horrifically flung off the road by a speeding cab, only moments before this photo was taken.
After the picture appeared in National Geographic, readers sent some $6,000 to the magazine to aid the family. The money was forwarded to CARE, which used the contributions to replace the sheep and provide a water pump for the village.
The profoundness of this particular image, Curl says, “is not just the kid. You include some sheep … to establish the setting,” to tell the story.
A good portrait photographer, such as those whose work will be displayed in the “In Focus” show, can “sense when the moment is right.”
Quoting one National Geographic photographer, Sam Abell, Curl says, “Compose and wait.”
In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits
Oct. 30-Jan. 2
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
Sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council
“National Geographic’s The Photographers” will be shown 12:15 p.m., Oct. 26, as part of the KIA’s ARTbreak series.