This summer, under the title FACES | European Portrait Photography since 1990, the Nederlands Fotomuseum will present an exhibition of work by 32 photographers and visual artists who have helped determine the renewal within European portrait photography in the past few decades. In addition to major names such as Anton Corbijn, Rineke Dijkstra, Boris Mikhailov, Thomas Ruff, Jürgen Teller and Stephan Vanfleteren, less renowned – although influential – photographers also make up the selection. The exhibition displays the power, wealth and diversity of modern European portrait photography and, in doing so, establishes a connection with the Renaissance tradition – the origin of the portrait genre.
FACES is the first exhibition that looks back on the interesting developments that European portrait photography has undergone since 1989. It perceives a tendency in which the focus lies on the individual – whether famous or anonymous – and his or her social and cultural identity. This artistic development has occurred against a background of extremely rapid changes within Europe as a result of globalization, migration, the advent of internet and economic unification: these are all changes that have disrupted the concept of ‘identity’ since the late eighties. The exhibition thus raises questions about identity, culture and history, as well as about the relations between the person portrayed, the spectator and the photographer.
Icons of modern portrait photography
At the invitation of BOZAR – Paleis voor Schone Kunsten (Palace of Fine Art) in Brussels, where this touring exhibition begins its itinerary, Frits Gierstberg (curator of the Nederlands Fotomuseum) selected work by well- known or leading portrait photographers from the past few decades. This selection includes iconic series such as the beach portraits of Rineke Dijkstra and the Porträts series by Thomas Ruff. The latter had a pivotal function in the innovation within the genre in the early nineties. But other influential series such as Rokytnik by Jitka Hanzlová from the Czech Republic or Case History by Boris Mikhailov from Ukraine, both with political connotations, are also represented in the exhibition.
Play of portrait traditions
The exhibition contains portraits made both in the studio and on location. A characteristic feature of the nineties was that the portrait genre entered into diverse associations with fashion, documentary and reportage photography. For example, fashion photographer Jürgen Teller photographed young ladies who approached him with the ultimate aim of becoming a photo-model. In a documentary-like setting, Tina Barney made a portrait series of well-off families in their homes. In his portrait series of Flemish fishermen, Stephan Vanfleteren chose to incorporate the personal setting into the portrait.
Photographers and other visual artists are often very aware of rich and age-old portrait (painting) traditions. In their work, they sometimes deliberately refer to such traditions or even engage in a game with them. Whereas portraits of people with status or an important social function have to be made in a traditional manner, increasing attention is now being paid to ordinary men and women in everyday life. The interaction between traditional stylistic features and a modern substantiation is evident in this exhibition. Photographer Clare Strand places homeless people in a classical English landscape decor. With their staged classical ‘corporate portraits’, Clegg & Guttmann also make a reference to the old portrait traditions.
Since the nineties, an increasing number of photographers have been directing their lenses toward the ordinary citizen and fellow human. This group includes Beat Streuli and Luc Delahaye who photograph people on the street without them noticing. But the exhibition also presents portraits of politicians, pop stars, artists (including self-portraits) and famous film actors (Isabella Rosselini, Francis Bacon, Luc Tuymans, Jacques Delors, Wim Duisenberg, and others).
FACES is a joint project of the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Rotterdam), BOZAR – Paleis voor Schone Kunsten (Brussels) and the Museum of Photography Thessaloniki (Thessaloniki, Greece), with Frits Gierstberg as the head curator. This touring exhibition is on show in Brussels from 6 February to 17 May 2015, and then in Rotterdam from 30 May to 30 August 2015, and in Thessaloniki from 11 September to 28 February 2016.
A publication entitled European Portrait Photography since 1990, covering work by all the photographers in the exhibition, will be issued to accompany the exhibition. The publication opens with an introduction by curator Frits Gierstberg and closes with a reflection by philosopher Alicja Gescinska. The book will be available in the Nederlands Fotomuseum shop from 6 February 2015 onward.