Breaking through the Facade: What the Hands Reveal in Lydia Panas’s “Figs”

Happy Friday! We’ve enjoyed delving deeper into some of the beautiful images on display in Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection during our 5-day celebration of  FotoWeekDC. The last photograph we’re featuring is Lydia Panas‘s Figs, which also happens to be the most recent photograph on display in the installation.

Lydia Panas, Figs, 2010. Chromogenic print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Lydia Panas

Lydia Panas, Figs, 2010. Chromogenic print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Lydia Panas

For Panas – a contemporary portrait photographer working in southeastern Pennsylvania – figs provide both a title for her 2010 work as well as a unique means for exploring the internal through portraiture. In her series Falling From Grace… from which this work comes, the subjects are placed in front of a black background and provided with various foods which they are instructed to hold in their hands. Panas believes that people’s extremities often reveal what a face may conceal. Her work is drawn from the idea that the things we try to hide still reveal themselves somehow. This seems most evident in the Falling from Grace… series, where the expressions are particularly unclear but the hands and positioning of food objects seem to give the viewer cues as to the sitter’s emotional state.

In Figs, the young woman sits with her hands holding several figs close to her chest. Her light skin and hair provide a stark contrast with the black background. Panas cites Old Dutch portraiture and early religious works, where the faces are set against a dark black background, as an important influence. The black background allows the viewer to zoom in directly on the sitter, her pose, and her expression. The woman’s expression is searching, slightly tentative, and her hands carefully cradle the figs and almost completely obscure them from the viewer’s sight, as if she is protecting them. There is an underlying intimacy between the subject and photographer in this and all the other photographs in the series, as if Panas has been able to extract each sitter’s vulnerability, breaking through the unreliability of facial expressions and using their subconscious movements and poses with the food objects to reveal their true emotions and thoughts.


Performing the Interior: The Artist as Subject in the Photography of Francesca Woodman

Read the other posts in this series here.

On day three of our celebration of FotoWeekDC, we look at the enigmatically beautiful photography of artist Francesca Woodman on display in Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection.

Francesca Woodman first began her experiments with photography at the age of 15. Two years later, as a student at Rhode Island School of Design, she continued her exploration of black and white photography and film until she took her own life at the young age of 22.  Despite her short lifespan, Woodman was prolific, creating over 10,000 negatives in just 7 years.

Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island,  1975-76, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy George and Betty Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-76, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman.

Woodman’s Providence, Rhode Island is one of only two self-portraits in the installation. While Harry Callahan’s portrait of his wife Eleanor strove to achieve formal autonomy without an introspective look into his subject matter, Providence is an exploration of Woodman’s inner psyche. She perpetually looked to herself as the subject of her own works, using her body to convey her inner emotions and thoughts. Her admiration for the fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville shows in the lushly shadowed and textured scenes Woodman shot in an abandoned house in Providence, Rhode Island, where her own figure often blurs into a ghostly, dematerialized form. In Providence, Woodman navigates both past and present; she appears in prairie-style dress and shoots with medium-format film reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century, yet her disposition is urgent, contemporary. The camera captures her in the dilapidated interior in the midst of movement (seen in the blurred lines of the hem of her dress and her arms) with her arms eerily extended towards the doorway as she stares out at the viewer. The open door suggests a way out of this transient space, but it is unclear if the artist is willing to leave and whether or not her arms are beckoning the door open or closed. This early photograph demonstrates the performative quality of Woodman’s photo and video oeuvre in which the artist engages with her space, using her body to explore the environment around her as well as her internal state.

The Woman in the Water: Intimacy and Aesthetics in Harry Callahan’s “Eleanor, Chicago”

Read the other posts in this series here.

For our second highlighted photograph from Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection as part of FotoWeekDC, we travel to the Midwest and the city of Chicago for an intimate portrait by Harry Callahan.

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Chicago, 1949. Gelatin Silver Print. ©Estate of Harry Callahan and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Chicago, 1949. Gelatin Silver Print. © The Estate of Harry Callahan, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Callahan was one of the most innovative and influential photographers of the 20th century. Throughout his long career, he repeatedly found new ways of looking at and representing the world in photographs that are elegant, visually daring, and highly experimental. His carefully-constructed photographs explore a deep interest in formal visual elements, one which required a significant amount of time to perfect.

Callahan often turned to his wife, Eleanor, as the subject of his photography. “I never refused when he wanted to take a picture,” she once said. “I never complained, whatever I was doing. If he said: ‘Come quick, Eleanor — there’s a good light,’ I was right there.” In Eleanor, Chicago, the viewer observes Eleanor enigmatically, peacefully and mostly submerged in the waters of Lake Michigan, her eyes closed and her hair cascading down into the water. The strands join the ebb and flow of the current around her as the stark whiteness of her body blends into the water, seeming to want to engulf her completely. Her stark black hair is contrasted against her porcelain skin and the reflecting surface of the water provides an evocative formal composition. Although one could interpret this as an intimate moment captured by a husband of his wife, Callahan is more focused on the formal components of the image –composition, line, tones, etc.–instead of exploring the psychology of Eleanor.  Callahan carefully posed Eleanor with her eyes closed, preventing the viewer from sharing any direct, emotional contact with her. Although Eleanor is the anchor of the composition, Callahan removes the individuality from the portrait, eschewing sentimentality and familiarity to highlight the purely aesthetic.