by Marlene Steele

National Portrait Gallery  Feb. 7 – Sept 7 2014

This photography exhibition presents several decades of historic, artistic and contemporary images of American icons who embody the concept of “Cool”.

What are the criteria of “coolness” for inclusion in this exhibition?

⁃     Original artistic vision with innovative signature style.

⁃         Represents cultural or societal rebellion for a given generation.

⁃         Iconic power of instant visual recognition.

⁃         Signature concept remains a global obsession in future generations

Beginning in the hallway and organized through several rooms by period, this exhibit carries through several decades from the 30’s and 40’s to the present. This essayist reacted to the cultural influences that still reverberate as well as the superb aesthetics of the many photographers in capturing their subjects. This essay highlights only a few of several overarching themes including film giants, music and performance icons as being among the cross-cultural influential.

Beginning with the pre 1940’s, consider the photo of Duke Ellington as captured by William Gottlieb.  Duke himself is momentarily turned away from his music toward the light; a sea of suits and shirts stagger in the background.  The foreground clutter includes several flamboyant ties draped from two mirror sidelights, above a tide of sundries that one would inevitably expect with the band master on the road.  It takes a minute to register that the shot is not a direct photo of the Duke. The shot is of the mirror in his divey dressing room. Thus Ellington is framed with the quotidian elements of his musical life.

The “Birth of Cool” Period: 1940-59 features Miles Davis, the audio embodiment of cool, who remains to this day one of the jazz giants of American 20th Century music. A triptych studies his moods between sets in a studio setting, instrument in hand, in signature classic shirt, casually unbuttoned, and dark sunglasses.

In the next decade, a baby-faced Carlos Santana without a guitar startles you with his inquisitive stare. The impenetrable slit eyed stare of Deborah Harry of Blondie, captured by Mapplethorpe, underlines her stated determination to be the forever mysterious figure, a beauty tough whose defiant attitude implodes the man-pleasing babe stereotype.

Singer/songwriter Madonna, also a trailblazing Vid producer, is described as a cultural omnivore, taking inspiration for her persona from a world wide buffet. Her black and white image captures her early trademark Bohemian fashion as she straddles a divider on a NYC roof. Her music and fashion influenced a generation and has been arguably further channeled by Lady Gaga and Pink.

More in the present:  Johnny Depp effectively deflects the viewer’s presence with the confronted extension of his tattooed arm, shoulder to knuckle across the width of the image.  Annie Leibowitz captures a casual moment in profile, his good looks, fringe beard and handlebarred ‘stash under the trademark mascaraed eyes.

Puerto Rican actor, Benicio Del Toro, is a self-styled cinema bad boy indebted to Marlon Brando. His features frozen in defiance, gaze from the left side of a dark disconnected space, life-sized in the picture frame.  His dark comportment, behind fisted hands and speaking lips, involve the viewer in an argumentative, if not about to be pugilistic, confrontation. Del Toro’s “ethical loner” screen presence (notably “Che”, “Traffic”, “The Usual Suspects”) brings the iconic trademarks identified with Robert Mitchum and Clint Eastwood forward in his own cultural identity. The captured instant of action as well as the symbolic isolationist context of this photograph are striking in the context of this exhibit.

Mentioned here are only a few concepts among several.  This show fascinates as it diagrams the lineage of generations of American icons, to say nothing of the great photographic artistry that is its medium.

Marlene Steele paints and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *