This summer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents a unique selection of photographic portraits of artists, from the French painter Henri Matisse to American writer Eudora Welty and the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald as well as many other figures in the world of the visual, literary, performing arts. Ranging in date from the late nineteenth century to the present, the compelling images in Face to Face reveal the expressive ways in which artists have used photography not only to portray their subjects but also to promote or shape their own celebrity. Many of the photographs in this exhibition, on view June 26 to Oct. 14, 2018, represent artists whose work can be seen in Modern Times: American Art, 1910 –1950, on view concurrently at the Museum. Among these are portraits of Berenice Abbott, George Biddle, Arthur B. Carles, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz.
Of special note are several groups of pictures of artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Thomas Eakins, Frida Kahlo, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, who skillfully crafted their public personae through photography. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe realized the power of photographs to shape their public reputation, and over time were the subjects of many portraits. By contrast, most of the images of Kahlo in the Museum’s collection are from a single session with her art dealer and friend Julien Levy, who produced what appears to be a collaborative and intimate exploration of her artistic identity. Another photograph from this same session, recently discovered, shows Levy’s future wife, Muriel Streeter, wearing some of Kahlo’s clothes, adding another dimension to this intriguing series.
Consisting of over one hundred works, the exhibition is centered around two groups of portraits by Arnold Newman and Carl Van Vechten that are foundational to the Museum’s photography collection. Newman’s portraits were featured in the Museum’s inaugural photography exhibition in 1945, titled Artists Look Like This. Among the subjects depicted are such well-known figures as cartoonist Saul Steinberg and painter Piet Mondrian, as well as illustrator Peggy Bacon and painter Robert Gwathmey. The sitters captured by Van Vechten – a novelist and artistic patron who photographed those he knew well – include Ella Fitzgerald and Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Writer James Baldwin, sculptor Richmond Barthé and painter Aaron Douglas are also highlights of this group.
Peter Barberie, The Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center, said: “We are delighted to share these portraits of some of the most creative people of the past century and to take this opportunity to explore an important aspect of our collection.”
Many of the Frida Kahlo photographs on view in Face to Face are also featured in Google’s Arts and Culture global initiative Faces of Frida – the first online retrospective devoted to the work and legacy of this important female artist.