Portraits: Photography, Culture, and Theory
The most common kind of photograph is the portrait. Wresting the means of representation from the hands of sculptors and painters, photography offers ordinary people the hope of recording and capturing themselves “as they really are.” Yet, if the photographic portrait makes self-representation possible on a mass scale, it also holds obvious appeal to state and private authorities seeking to register, differentiate, and control subject populations. Today, the photographic portrait is a major driver of social media exchange—a nexus at which the private, public, and corporate commingle in ways destabilizing to notions of art, authenticity, sociality, and conformity. What explains the enduring power, popularity, and mystique of portrait photography? How, and can, we differentiate the mundane portrait from the artistic? How has portrait photography been a driver of mass culture, expression, and indeed liberation, as well as a support to bureaucratic systems of control? How can we understand the photographic portrait—its history, present, and possible futures?
In this course, we will travel through 19th-century battlefields and early celebrity culture, dingy New York City apartments and influencer Instagram feeds, as we explore how photographic portraits are active participants in changing political forces and the dynamics of public discourse. Examining the works of Julia Margaret Cameron, Matthew Brady, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin, and many more, we will consider how photographic portraits do more than allow individuals to capture and own the faces of themselves and others. We will ask: how, through portraiture, has the human face become both a subject of knowledge and an active space for expressing a potential self? How has it transformed how we understand and envision the world? What, indeed, counts as a portrait? Readings will include works by Jean-Luc Nancy, Susan Sontag, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Laura Mulvey, among others.
Course ScheduleThursday, 5:00-8:00pm PST
November 18 — December 16, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Thursday, November 25th.