Exhibit Review: In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West

-Jesenia E. Oquendo


Walking up the white stairs to enter the exhibit, “In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa,” the light shines upon a summary located in front of the hall. The dull, yellow wall behind the text catches the eye of the viewer against the bare white cube that the viewer has to walk into. The person who curated this exhibit definitely used a lot of white space. The photographs are very miniscule compared to the size of the room. The mood that I get off the exhibit is dull and quite boring. In order to get a good feel of the exhibit, you have to walk up close to the wall and closely look at the photographs. Along the walls, the photographs are split into different divisions such as group portraits in rural communities and expand all the way to self-portraits.

Going as far as portraits from West Africa within the 1870’s up until the 1970’s, a century of portraits are chronicled within the exhibit. Along with portraits, photo postcards and even negatives are displayed on the walls. When looking at the faces of the individuals, I tend to notice that none of the people appear to be smiling. Everyone tends to be still and in an upright position, within eye level. The picture definitely gives off that balanced/symmetrical look. Many of the men are dressed in their best suits as well. I’m not too sure if it was purposely placed that way in the exhibit but the photographs start off with portrait photography of the upper class and the further in I walked in the exhibit, it seems like a more lower class society were being portrayed in the images.

Alex Agbaglo Acolatse’s art piece entitled Group portrait, took the photograph that was most appealing to my eye within the exhibit. The original photograph was very interesting to look at but what caught my eye more was the glass negative. Within the photo, he is photographing upper class men outdoors in front of a backdrop giving that figure to ground feel. The photo is definitely lightened up in the top part of the image and then the lower it gets, the more you see the contrast getting to the foreground. There definitely is a consistent strong, horizontal line, especially in the background where the large painting behind the men is standing at and the vertical lines on the left hand side of the image where the man appears to be holding a cane.

As a whole, the exhibit gives off a very dull feeling to me and maybe it is because of the amount of open space that it holds. White space is always good and maybe it would be easier to keep your attention on one photograph but because the photos are so minuscule, there is no variety in size so everything is so balanced and the same. The exhibit communicates the practice of adapting new technology and following the tradition of portraiture.

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One Response to Exhibit Review: In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West

  1. rmichals says:

    I thought when I assigned the show that there would be a significant amount of work by both Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibi, both from Mali, both fantastic photographers. I was disappointed to when I saw the actual show and there were only a few things by each of these photographers. That said you managed to pinpoint a very iterating photograph to discuss. Imagine having to have a glass plate for every photo you wanted to create? Hard to imagine now how special each frame was.

    Also, I really like what the Met wrote about the image you picked. “While Acolatse would have most likely cropped the final print, his wide framing reveals the wall of a building and the sand of the street of Lomé, and betrays the tension between reality and photographic fiction.” This was one of the most interesting things about this show in general: the images where you could see beyond the backdrop and you could compare the actual location with the picture or pattern on the backdrop.

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