Arts Desk

Reviewed: “Shaping a Modern Identity” at the Phillips Collection

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Shaping a Modern Identity: Photographs from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection” starts with a good question. “Is portraiture a reflection of the sitter’s truth?” the wall text asks. “Or that of the artist? Or a type of collaboration?”

Not surprisingly, the 16 images in the exhibit—the latest in the Phillips Collection’s series of small samplings from the Lichtenbergs’ collection—provide a measure of support for each of these answers.

Lydia Panas’ “Figs” takes a heavily directorial tack, posing a young and extremely pale woman in the manner of the Dutch masters; so does Elisabeth Sunday’s image of a Kenyan girl artificially elongated into an elegant curve before the shutter was snapped (the subject didn’t know the picture was being taken, so the form of the image was all up to Sunday).

On the opposite end of the manipulation spectrum is a pair of photographs, cleverly matched: a Brassai portrait of a campily blinged-out 1930s Paris café-dweller and a Tina Barney photograph of a shy British aristocrat, with each subject putting their own imprint on how they are portrayed, including a shared gesture of tented fingers.Phillips 2

A few images of notable personages are blandly underwhelming—Edward Weston photographed by Ansel Adams, Arnold Schoenberg by Man Ray, and Thomas Mann by Edward Steichen—but the portrayals of comparative unknowns often shine, including Jack Delano’s grizzled, gap-toothed, Depression-era miner and Marco Delogu’s breastfeeding Roma woman with piercingly reflective eyes.

However, the most flawless image in the exhibit is Sally Mann’s 1991 portrait of her son standing in water, three-quarters submerged. The boy’s arms rest on the surface, effectively separating a light area from a dark area. This Genesis symbolism is reinforced by the way his head-and-shoulders outline is mirrored, upside down, in black, suggesting nothing less than a God-Satan duality.

On view to Jan. 12 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.

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