The allure of famed authors and visual artists was never lost on photographers, who from the medium's earliest days made portraits of celebrated creators, quickly establishing--or at least advancing--the cult of personality that would blossom in the modern era. As this exhibit shows, as far back as 1850, seminal photographers such as Nadar were posing France’s famous men of letters in all the starchy dignity of 19th-century celebrity, but it wasn’t long before the conventions of author/artist portraiture began to stretch.
By the 20th century, photographers had begun to capture artists more comfortably in their element--often the raffish, roguish or louche element exemplified by portraits of the famous (or notorious) smoking or holding a cigarette or a glass of liquor. The cerebral and self-styled essence of writers and painters such as Norman Mailer, Mark Rothko, Jacques Prevert, William Faulkner, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso or Aldous Huxley demanded a new kind of portraiture, a more candid camera that displayed them as they might be more typically encountered, at café tables or in their studios, amid some Promethean struggle with the muse.
In this exhibit, photographers as diverse as Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank and Arnold Newman are represented by a number of classic portraits that define the genre of the artist photo. Berets, tobacco, searching gazes, and diffident postures are among the touchstones of these vintage visions, and they say a good deal about the self-consciousness of the Western artistic temperament--an outsider’s temperament to a large degree, uncomfortable with the conventions of classical portraiture, filled with dark intensities and touched with daring.