Photography can conjure intimacy where none exists or snuff out that quality where it ought to flourish. As an electrochemical process—regardless of whether one considers it an art or something else—photography indubitably is a form of technology. And intimacy, which comes in multifarious species and degrees, strongly resembles technology as described by Kranzberg’s First Law: It is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
Intimacy in its numerous forms populates two current photography shows that have one name in common: Lucinda Bunnen: Georgia Portraits at the Atlanta Preservation Center through December 13 and The Bunnen Collection at the High Museum of Art through February 2. Bunnen, perhaps best known as a key patron of the arts in Atlanta, wears her artist cap for the former exhibition and both hats for the latter. She shot the 27 portraits in the Preservation Center show as part of her Movers and Shakers series, begun in the late 1970s as a means of establishing the state’s political bona fides during Jimmy Carter’s rise to prominence and revived only recently as a way to document the state capital’s burgeoning cultural populace. Several Movers and Shakers portraits also appear in the High Museum show, which consists of 120 prints selected from the almost 700 photographs in whose acquisition Bunnen has been involved.
The Preservation Center show occupies a single room with rough, unrestored walls inside the Lemuel P. Grant Mansion, which the organization now calls home. This setting bestows an intimacy of place the Germans call gemütlichkeit, a quality not possible, but also not desirable, inside the formal white box of the High Museum. The Bunnen Collection fills three adjacent areas on the top floor of the High’s Wieland Pavilion, and curator Brett Abbott makes the most of the roomy, high-ceilinged space. The centerpieces—a gargantuan 1980 Chuck Close self-portrait and Nicholas Nixon’s famed series of familial pictures, The Brown Sisters (1975–2013)—are here. The scale of Close’s work is such that an average museumgoer’s fist would be roughly crumb-sized relative to the great, ragged wires of the artist’s facial hairs as they appear in this vast triptych. Thus, Close gives viewers a giant’s intimacy, something otherwise impossible outside ill-conceived science fiction films. By contrast the four Brown sisters—the photographer’s wife and her three siblings, captured in 39 images and displayed in a 3-by-13 grid—“embody” kinship intimacies. Nixon harnesses his subjects’ physicality to detail or suggest those lifelong entanglements of family: true first love, the proximity of a household in which one grows up and which most of us are destined to outgrow, the slow sculpture of aging. Most daring here is Nixon’s inclusion of pictures wherein his silhouette is cast upon the women. His atypical choice proves emblematic, not only for both these exhibitions but perhaps for photographic portraiture overall, as he creates a shadow intimacy, “mere” shadows of any intimacy between artist and subject, an intimacy visible literally and figuratively in his shadow.
According to Preservation Center Events Coordinator Carolyn McLaughlin, Bunnen (quite the mover and shaker herself) has remarked upon how few of her 1970s subjects she was personally acquainted with beforehand. The statement reasonably uncouples many viewers, myself included, from any assumption that Bunnen’s social station eased or erased her need to develop a portraitist’s bag of tricks. Almost a third of these pictures were shot at subjects’ homes, where a skilled photographer’s most important bit of marshaled artistry is undoing or employing the invasive intimacy of her very presence. My own favorite among Bunnen’s 1970s judo fillips is her portrait of academic Richard A. Long amid his books and absorbed by one of them. Bunnen places him at the margin of the frame as if to make him one with/one more of the learned trappings he had amassed.
Context is what, by turn, strips neutrality from technology in particular, photography specifically (inside and outside the frame), and intimacy by coincidence. A picture of a nude that wouldn’t tug an eyebrow inside a museum is likely to produce different effects outside a bank or inside a grade-school classroom. Several works in the High’s show display a stalker’s intimacy with their subjects: Joel Meyerowitz’s Man on the Champs Elysée (1980) and Lisette Model’s New York (circa 1951) catch pedestrians in mid-stride. In each, the invasiveness of the photographer’s gaze is minatory. Model seems to be shooting from concealment and under cover of darkness; the sunny surroundings of the man shot by Meyerowitz ought to offer comfort, but the blurring of distant fellow pedestrians isolates him, and his fleshy neck and bald scalp combine into a patch of intense vulnerability. Ray Metzker makes viewers the intruders with Untitled, 77fb-22ne (1977), which juxtaposes a seemingly lifeless and flattened face against the edge of a gutter so that the figure is being roused from slumber, one eye half open to the onlookers “watching her sleep” in the street.
With their most potent successes stemming from the questions they breed about photographic portraiture and portraitists, these two shows warrant consideration. Perhaps more pressing, though: What intimacies are we breeding via the Internet (almost certainly the largest portrait gallery in the history of the world) and the photographs we post there?
Rest assured that, whatever else they may be, they are not neutral.