Shotgun Review

About Face

By Shotgun Reviews August 2, 2012

Nostalgia can be described as a form of mourning, longing for a moment that has passed. As civilization moves into the next epoch, nostalgia for the analog grows, relocating certain objects as artifacts. Amidst the range and diversity of the exhibition About Face at Pier 24, I was entranced by the retratos pintados (“painted pictures”),  a group of colorful, vernacular family photographs of different sizes, intimately grouped in an oval shape, as they might be displayed in their more native setting, the home.

In northeastern Brazil from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries, artists were trained to enhance black-and-white photographs using oil paint. Some of the images in the retratos pintados appear more skillfully rendered than others, but the intention was to make the families look healthy and well adorned: improving clothes, hair, and smiles; creating skin tones; adding jewelry; and creating a brightly colored background. In one photograph, the hair of one figure is painted such that it changes the shape of the head, and so necessarily the size of the face is shrunken to accommodate the hair. In many cases the fanciful clothing appears to be from a stencil and is reminiscent of that of paper dolls.

Sometimes the relative sizes of body parts and whole bodies don’t quite match, but it is easy to see that this is not the function of these images, nor that of their embellishment. Retrados pintados evoke duration, the familial, and the body in simultaneous states of presence and absence: in life and


Retratos pintados, date unknown (appx.1950-1970); oil paint on black-and-white photograph; 8 x1 0 in. Courtesy of Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco.

death. These photographs are personal totems and talismans from a time when the photograph, the actual object, was a potent link to a real person.

As found images, these are fragments from more complete histories, like specimens in an entomologist’s cabinet; the different families in these pictures are displayed together on one wall in the gallery even though they are not related. The genre is saturated with nostalgic familiarity, and these images cohere around the context of collective cultural memory. As a newfound inclusion initiates these works into the gallery setting of Pier 24, it also represents another evolution in their meaning and function in the realm of human exchange.


About Face is on view at Pier 24 Photography, in San Francisco, through February 28, 2013.


Diana Stapleton is a video and performance artist pursuing a MFA and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

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