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Portraits of intimacy at the Norton Simon

A quiet grouping of photography brings the viewer face to face with its subjects.

April 14, 2014|By Kirk Silsbee
  • "Miss Juare" (La Señorita Juare), 1934, Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002); Gelatin silver print. Image: 9-1/8 x 7-1/8 in. (23.2 x 18.1 cm)
"Miss Juare" (La Señorita Juare),… (Courtesy of Norton…)

Regardless of size, a good art show can transport an audience outside of its everyday reality and into another space of consciousness, however briefly. If a small-scale exhibition does this, the possibility of a meaningful emotional connection between a viewer and the artist increases exponentially. Intimacy has tremendous potential for transformative experience in a way that a blockbuster show (where people shuffle through like so much cattle) seldom does. That's what is happening at the moment in the Norton Simon's new "Face It: The Photographic Portrait."

It sits in the same little first-floor gallery that was home to the recent Simon display of Goya prints. Hit it just right, say on a weekday morning, and you'll have the place to yourself. In the quiet of the room with its subdued light, 20 black-and-white photographic subjects offer themselves to various degrees of candor and disclosure. The format brings the images into a kind of visual and tonal proximity. Seventeen different photographers — some as iconic as Imogen Cunningham, Minor White and Diane Arbus — made them, in the years 1934 to 2001.

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One of the quiet triumphs of this grouping is to reveal how different motives and strategies can achieve similar results. Lee Miller, the Surrealist muse-turned-artist, photographed the constructionist artist Joseph Cornell in 1933. In a dramatically lit setting, Cornell's illuminated head rests next to his one-of-a-kind creations: a toy sailboat with a long shock of hair and a large butterfly attached to it. Cornell and the object are linked as though one grew out of the other. Though he worked a steady day job, Cornell's true life was his artwork, done on his own time. Miller captured a central truth about him.

Jump ahead to 2000 for Judy Dater's photo of master printmaker June Wayne. There's Wayne, her back to the camera in a well-lit studio, at the end of her life. Her hair is white and cropped close, but her back takes up the largest part of the frame. It serves as a ground for the ornate, jeweled monocle that she wore around her neck. Like Miller, Dater used an object of Wayne's work as a visual surrogate for her subject.

Rena Small does something similar in her study of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Shot from below, his obscured face is at the top of the image; the murky, available-light image brings to mind the work of Roy de Carava. Front-and-foremost in the photo are Basquiat's elegant hands with their long, tapering fingers.

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