The self-portrait has a long tradition: The first recognized example was made by Pharaoh Akhenaten's chief sculptor in 1365 B.C. Yet self-portraiture did not gain significant momentum until the Renaissance, when humanism helped to elevate art above craft, and the artist's ability became inextricably linked with his identity.
Certainly, self-portraits imply keen self-awareness -- but not, inevitably, the narcissistic kind. Often they are mini-memoirs, capturing a moment and an attitude, or documenting a point along a lifeline's arc.
In Self Portrait: Silver Eye at 30, the 105 photographs that comprise the exhibition depict the three-decade-old photography center by way of its geographically disparate and stylistically divergent members, who currently number 577. They hail from 18 states and from as far afield as Germany and Cyprus.
Not every image included is a traditional self-portrait. Phoenix native Annie Lopez's brushstroke-edged, indigo-colored 2007 cyanotype, "Thought I Had a Chance (letter from Mike)," depicts masculine block handwriting and, in the center, the spectral silhouette of a floral bouquet. While the letter is not always legible, the writer's insecurity is communicated by frequent cross-outs and rewordings. This is a portrait of projected desire, which fell on and doubtlessly altered Lopez's life.
Along with Lopez's cyanotype, two other antiquated or uncommon techniques are represented. For the dark sepia "Paper Thin Heart" (2008), Connecticut's Jessica Somers uses the rare palladium-based process Ziatype, on salted paper. Somers, in a pose worthy of Man Ray's model/mistress Lee Miller, saws at taut heartstrings with a scissor blade. Meanwhile, Topeka's Marydorsey Wanless employs the irreproducible tintype process to create "Renewal" (2008), an image of Wanless' smiling face as her head emerges from murky water. Even absent ghostly interpolations, it is evocative of 19th-century spirit photographs.
There are several haunting works, like Pittsburgher Karen Antonelli's 1987 selenium and mixed media "Momento Mori," with its shaken face that resembles a skull framed by daisies. Perhaps yet more arresting is Easton, Pa., native Kate Pollard's digital chromogenic print, "Sold 2008." A female looks through the passenger window of a pick-up, leaving condensation on the glass. Her arms, although partially concealed, seem locked in a protective self-embrace. The passenger seat is empty, but her troubled, almost tearful gaze suggests a series of not-so-pleasant explanations: Was the truck sold, or was she?
While some works tend toward the disquieting and thought-provoking, others lean toward artful levity. Local artist Sue Abramson's archival inkjet "Sue 2005/2009" amuses with its wide-eyed half-portrait: Sue appears from the eyes up, their color like the lush foliage she stands in front of, her riotously curly red hair both mimicking and complementing the texture of the bushes behind her.
Likewise, there are clever riffs on old tropes: Pittsburgher Phillip Windell's 2009 archival inkjet "Portrait of Self-Portraying" makes a wily nod to the photographer capturing his or her own reflection. It's difficult to find Windell, who throws in two red herrings, ostensibly a father and son, who walk toward the camera on the left side with cups of coffee. At the center of the image hovers the vague apparition of Windell, reflected in a storefront window.
Pittsburgh's George Kollar also captures himself in a commercial window with his 1995 gelatin silver "In the Belly of Angel." Light and shadow, an illuminated brow and jaw, allow viewers to distinguish his face -- on the windowpane -- from the dark abdomen of a statuette behind it.
That image, in fact, symbolizes the exhibition: Visitors can distinguish the photography center's evolving identity at this noteworthy moment. Begun in 1979 as Blatant Image Gallery and The Silver Eye Photographic Workshop, Silver Eye has become one of the nation's foremost nonprofit photographic centers. Appropriately, the anniversary exhibition reveals -- in a variety of photographic media -- the beating hearts, wandering eyes, and boundless imaginations that both fuel and fulfill the organization's mission.
Self Portrait: Silver Eye at 30 continues through Sept. 12. Silver Eye Photography Center, 1015 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1810 or www.silvereye.org