Henri Cartier-Bresson took thousands of pictures during his long career, but he was notoriously camera shy. Edward Steichen had painterly aspirations and made early self-portraits as a Baudelairean dandy wielding a palette and brush. Robert Mapplethorpe liked to take photos of his own mesmerizing gaze. Those are a few of the revelations to emerge from “Facing the Lens: Portraits of Photographers,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
“Originally we thought of doing portraits of artists in general,” says Christian Peterson, associate curator of photography and the organizer of the show, which runs through August 28. “Then I realized that a lot of the works are of photographers, either self-portraits or photos made by other photographers.”
Spanning the years 1887 to 2003—much of the history of the medium—”Facing the Lens” includes about 75 works, drawn largely from the museum’s collection. A portrait of Edward Weston by Ansel Adams shows the former looking like a tree toad or a humanoid outgrowth at the base of a giant eucalyptus tree. “Weston was a fairly short man, and to put him in front of a big tree makes him look particularly small,” says Peterson, though the curator believes no malice was intended. Cartier-Bresson, captured against a brick wall by Arnold Newman, looks poised to flee the decisive moment at any second. And Eadweard Muybridge, famed for his series of motion studies, did one of his own naked self throwing the discus, walking, and going up and down steps. “This photo is part of a group that shows multiple images of a subject,” says Peterson, “which makes the point that, of course, we all know a single portrait of any individual can in no way sum up his or her entirety.”
One of the most spontaneous images is by a local Minneapolis legend, Ramon J. Muxter, who “was a really gonzo crazy street photographer,” says the curator. “When he ran into well-known people in New York City, he would hold the camera out at arm’s length and take a self-portrait” with them. Muxter’s photo of himself and William Burroughs shows them at the Spring Street Bar in an uneasy embrace, eyes shut tight.
Sometimes the style of the subject’s work asserts itself even when other photographers are behind the camera. Alec Soth’s 2000 study of a rumpled William Eggleston hunched over a keyboard looks a lot like… a William Eggleston.