Ahead of the press cycle for The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion sat for a series of portraits with the renowned photographer Brigitte Lacombe. The resulting images land far outside of your standard book jacket photo—particularly one of Didion staring directly at the camera, looking utterly bereft. This revealing look at an artist, by an artist, is at the center of “Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe, and Catherine Opie,” opening at New York’s International Center of Photography on January 27. The exhibition features 50-plus images of a who’s-who of artists—including Kara Walker, John Waters, Patti Smith, Maya Angelou, Michèle Lamy, and Louise Bourgeois—and to curator Helen Molesworth, the identity of those who made them is key.
“Everyone who’s imaged in this show is someone who has become symbolic; their work means something to and stands for something for people,” she says. “And with portraits of them by other artists, I feel like there’s a sensitivity about the gap between the person who makes the thing and the thing itself. The picture [of Didion] allows me to have a moment where I can imagine her as a writer, as a maker”—as more than just the embodiment of what she published.
Molesworth chose to highlight Lacombe, Opie, and Dean because of the artists’ marked similarities—they are all decades into their careers and deeply informed by the history of the Western portraiture—and their differences. The latter are perhaps most apparent when subjects overlap, as is the case with the artists Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon and the writer and cultural critic Hilton Als. Lacombe’s Als, who is grinning, is the one Molesworth recognizes from functions like a holiday party—“that’s social Hilton—Hilton the funny, Hilton the gregarious.” Opie’s, which depicts a straight-faced Als seated against a dramatic black backdrop, is so different in tone, it made Molesworth see him in a new light. “There’s a somberness that made me realize, Oh, yeah, it’s not easy to be Hilton Als. There is a weight that comes with being such a public voice.”
The exhibition also features two films by Dean, played on a projector heard audibly throughout the gallery. One finds David Hockney in his element—which is to say, chain-smoking (five cigarettes over the course of the short) in his studio. The other is a conversation between the painters Julie Mehretu and Luchita Hurtado titled One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting—a reference to how the artists would turn 50 and 100, respectively, on the same day later that year. The film highlights the act of listening as much as it does the act of storytelling. Still or moving, these are portraits that double as a means for dialogue.