Let’s face it

Variations on Likeness at DVAC

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Julie Renee Jones, “Mere”

A portrait can be more than just a picture of what a person looks like on the outside – it can be an insight into their soul. That insight, coupled with the diversity of the human condition, is what Dayton Visual Arts Center’s (DVAC) latest exhibit, Variations on Likeness explores.

“It’s a way to contextualize portraiture,” Joel Whitaker, curator and professor at University of Dayton, said. “Each artist takes a presumed way of portrait photography and does it in a different way.”

The Likeness exhibit features four different photographers from four different backgrounds – three have Dayton connections, and one comes all the way from Texas. Every two years, DVAC sends out a call for exhibitions. While reviewing the 120 applications, the jury noticed in three of them (two of the photographers applied together) a theme – they were all portrait photographers, even though their take on portraiture varied wildly.

First is Keliy Anderson-Staley from Houston, Texas, where she works as a professor at University of Houston and owns her own studio. In July, Anderson-Staley released her first book, “On the Wet Bough,” a collection of essays coupled with 85 tintype portraits from the last decade of her work.

Developing tintypes is a photography process from more than 100 years ago. According to Anderson-Staley’s website, the tintypes are made with chemistry mixed according to 19th-century recipes, period brass lenses and wooden view cameras, and require a personal hand-coating for each plate.

She explains in “Bough,” “the long exposure time needed to make a tintype requires the sitter remain as still as possible to produce a sharp image. As a result, the subjects of these tintypes often display an intense and guileless expression that immediately connects their faces to those of 19th-century portraits. Stripped of the modern default behavior of smiling in front of a camera, these images … suggest an important rethinking of what it means to photograph and be photographed.”

While in Anderson-Staley’s portraits, the subject stares directly at the camera, photographer Julie Renee Jones often “denies the face.”

The Dayton-raised artist explained this is photographer-speak for not showing a direct view of someone’s face. In one of her favorite shots of the series, “The Shape,” her sister’s face is completely blanked out by the light coming in from the window.

Using color negatives with film, Jones’s photographs evoke certain personal memories – this set actually started as a collegiate project when she was completing her Master’s at Columbia University in Chicago.

Growing up 16 years younger than one of her siblings, Jones said there was “an entire life before I existed.” She often liked to make up stories and put herself in that lost childhood.

“I take my ordinary world and transform it into something extraordinary,” Jones said.

In Jones’ photographs, the focus is on the story behind the photographs. In Daniel J. McInnis’s work, the story or environment around the subject is the key.

The St. Mary’s-based artist is a professor at Wittenberg University and has also taught at School of Visual Arts in New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Ithaca College in New York, as well as the American University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“His environmental portraits make a tie between who the subjects are and where they are,” Whitaker said.

McInnis related his inspiration comes from August Sander, an early 20th century German photographer, whose mission and work was to not only document as many people as possible in the German culture of the day, but also to represent different classes, professionals and age groups.

In McInnis’s work, viewers may see a gentleman at his kitchen table in Seattle, a couple on their street in Chicago or a woman at a cafe in New York. McInnis noted the environment the subject is photographed in is either their own neighborhood or a space that has symbolic meaning to them. He described his images as “an attempt at intimacy, a celebration of variation, an exploration of choice and a careful consideration of personal detail.”

Glenna Jennings’s work, however, focuses on what the subject is looking at. Her portrait project is called Looking at Looking: someone looking at another photograph. But, specifically, photographs from the National Cash Register archive of social welfare programs, such as group calisthenics and company hygiene programs. Those photographs are turned into collages and wallpapers for her subjects to view.

Jennings is a lecturer at University of Dayton, and has studied at Pepperdine University, Art Center College of Design and University of California.

“[My purpose is to] open a dialogue with diverse audiences about social welfare and the history of capitalism,” Jennings said.

She also wants to use history as a platform to encourage discussion about subjecthood, community and spectacle.

So far, Jennings has completed this project in Dayton and Nanjing, China, and plans to make more portraits in Germany and Mexico. She wants the DVAC exhibition to include several portrait sessions so she can grow her archive of Daytonian faces. Unlike the other photographers, her work is completely digital and, according to Whitaker, capitalizes on the tools of that genre.

Variations on Likeness will be at DVAC from Friday, Sept. 5 through Saturday, Oct. 18. There is an opening reception on Friday, Sept. 5 from 5-8 p.m., and a gallery talk on Oct. 2 from 5-8 p.m. The Dayton Visual Arts Center is located at 118 N. Jefferson St. in downtown Dayton. For more information, please call 937.224.3822 or visit daytonvisualarts.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at JoyellNevins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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