Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Photographer’s Glass National Geographic Portraits at SUU

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the fiery Cassius, sensing that his fellow nobleman, Brutus, has undefined misgivings about Caesar’s increasing power, seeks to lure him into a conspiracy to topple the would-be king. First, he must convince Brutus of the impending danger and convince him to “put country first.” He begins to insinuate himself with these lines:

“Therefore, good Brutus, be prepar’d to hear;
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.”

It had been years since I had seen or read Julius Caesar, and as I watched the troupe of the Utah Shakesepearean Festival bring the play to passionate life on the opening night of their fall season last weekend, the words, written over four hundred years ago, kept echoing through my head as they bounced off the present. Talk of honor and the primacy of country, accusations of bribery and corruption, the power of political stagecraft and the sudden surges and declines of political destiny seemed all too familiar. After all, I had raced down to the Randall L. Jones Theatre to see the play after catching the first ten minutes of the first presidential debate.

The next day, however, as I visit In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits at the Braithwaite Fine Arts Gallery on the SUU campus, the connections in Shakespeare’s play to the present political situation faded and it were these words by Cassius in the opening scene that stuck in my mind.

Before the internet and cable flooded us with images from around the world, those thick glossy pages between the canary yellow covers of National Geographic were for many of us our eyes onto the world. When I looked through the pages of National Geographic as a child, the wonder of the images was how different the people in them were. As this exhibit of 56 color and black-and-white photographs demonstrates, the photographers for National Geographic created stunning portraits of individuals from around the world: Mardi Gras revelers in Haiti, chain smokers in Papua New Guinea, the startling beautiful green-eyed Pushtun girl from Afghanistan. As a child these portraits told me a great deal about the costumes and customs that make people different around the globe.

Maybe it was a subtle suggestion from the words of the bard, or some personal maturing, or simply the power of taking the images off the pages of a magazine and onto a gallery wall; but as I looked around the exhibit in Cedar City I realized that though these photographs can tell us a great deal about how we differ, they also serve, in Shakespeare’s words, as a glass, to modestly discover ourselves.

Difference is all context. And, granted a great deal of the job of a National Geographic photographer is to give us the context. But context alone is only journalism and these images are more than that. They are portraits, and a portrait done well is one that captures the spirit of the sitter. And when that is captured, their humanity is revealed; and that is the mirror that discovers our own humanity to ourselves.

 

In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits is at the Braithwaite Fine Arts Gallery in Cedar City through November 1. For more information on the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which continues with daily performances through October 21, visit www.bard.org

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