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When Muybridge first began work on his Animal Locomotion series in 1884, he experimented with photographs that depict one action, frozen in time, from multiple points of view. These pictures were shot with six cameras arranged in an arc around the subject with shutters that were triggered simultaneously. Muybridge posed himself for this work, creating a series of self-portraits that show his physique while walking, climbing, throwing, shoveling, and wielding a pick. Because of his obsessive work ethic, Muybridge had long identified with laborers, such as miners, construction workers, and lumberjacks. He produced 781 plates in four years for Animal Locomotion, which was finally published in 1887. That year the Corcoran Gallery of Art acquired an almost complete set of plates directly from the artist.

Eadweard Muybridge, Plate Number 521. A, walking; B, ascending step; C, throwing disk; D, using shovel; E, using pick; F, using pick, 1887, collotype, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, 1887) 2014.79.505

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For many years, Stieglitz had wanted to create a composite portrait of someone, photographing them from birth to death to reveal, as he said, that person’s “many selves” and show the way identity changes over time and varies in different circumstances. When Georgia O’Keeffe moved to New York in 1918 and she and Stieglitz began living together, he had an ever-present model. From 1918 to 1937, he made more than 330 portraits of her that show her evolution from a young, unknown art teacher to a celebrated painter. Yet because Stieglitz selected when, where, and how to photograph O’Keeffe, his composite portrait says as much—if not more—about his understanding of who O’Keeffe was (the gifted artist, the femme fatale, the child in need of protection) than it does about her true personality.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, palladium print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection 1980.70.26

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A writer, painter, and philosopher, Witkiewicz began to photograph while he was a teenager. From 1911 to 1914, while undergoing psychoanalysis and involved in two tumultuous relationships (one ending when his pregnant fiancée killed herself in 1914), he made a series of startling self-portraits. Close-up, confrontational, and searching, they are pictures in which the artist seems to seek understanding of himself by scrutinizing his visage.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Self-Portrait (Collapse by the Lamp/Kolaps przy lampie), c. 1913, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Foto Fund and Robert Menschel and the Vital Projects Fund 2009.56.1

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In 1911, Sander began a massive project to document “people of the twentieth century.” Identifying them by their professions, not their names, he aimed to create a typological record of citizens of the Weimar Republic. He photographed people from all walks of life—from bakers, bankers, and businessmen to soldiers, students, and tradesmen, as well as gypsies, the unemployed, and the homeless. The Nazis banned his project in the 1930s because his pictures did not conform to the ideal Aryan type. Although he stopped working after World War II, he made this rare enlargement of a bricklayer for an exhibition of his photographs in the early 1950s.

August Sander, The Bricklayer, 1928, gelatin silver print, printed c. 1950, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Gerhard and Christine Sander, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art 1990.120.1

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A painter, professor, and photographer, Kesting served in World War I. Using smoke to obliterate half of his face, his self-portrait alludes to the horrifying physical and psychological disfiguration many soldiers suffered during the war. 

Edmund Kesting, Self-Portrait, c. 1926, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Menschel and the Vital Projects Fund 2009.48.1

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From the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux to 20th-century works by Jasper Johns, artists for centuries have imprinted their hands onto their work, physically and metaphorically affirming the actions of their body to create their art. In this greatly underexposed picture, the Hungarian teenager Berda depicted his ghostlike fingers emerging from a black void, as if to suggest the indomitable human spirit.

Erno Berda, Kéz (My Hand), c. 1928, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2004.72.1

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Celebrated for her portraits of people traditionally on the margins of society—dwarfs and giants—as well as those on the inside— society matrons and crying babies—Arbus was fascinated with the relationship between appearance and identity. Many of her subjects, such as these triplets, face the camera, tacitly aware of their collaboration in her art. Rendering the familiar strange and the strange familiar, her carefully composed pictures compel us to look at the world in new ways. “We’ve all got an identity,” she said. “You can’t avoid it. It’s what’s left when you take away everything else.”

Diane Arbus, Triplets in their Bedroom, N.J., 1963, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, R. K. Mellon Family Foundation 2003.122.3

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Trained as a painter, DeCarava became the first African American photographer to win a prestigious Guggenheim award in 1952. He wrote in his application that he sought to “show the strength, the wisdom of the Negro people. Not the famous and the well-known, but the unknown and the unnamed, revealing the roots from which springs the greatness of all human beings.” DeCarava struggled and triumphed over photographic films and papers that were calibrated to record and depict lighter complexions, rendering dark skin only as an undifferentiated black tone. Instead, DeCarava’s portrait of David shows the sheen of the young boy’s skin as it glistens in the noonday sun, as well as the soft blackness of his hair and the lush, rich blackness of his neck and arms, revealing a more genuine image of this African American boy.

Roy Decarava, David, 1952, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Joshua P. Smith Collection 2001.128.23

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Walker Evans, Photographer’s Display Window, Birmingham, Alabama, 1936, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry H. Lunn, Jr. in honor of Jacob Kainen and in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art 1989.89.8

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Moroccan-born Essaydi undermines traditional gender roles in her Converging Territories series, in which she examines Arab feminism through carefully constructed portraits. Her photographs of female relatives and friends wearing simple, white cotton haiks are intricately inscribed with gently furling Arabic script. Men traditionally use calligraphy to transcribe holy texts, while the henna ink Essaydi uses is a common feminine adornment. Essaydi explains: “My photographs are about the women subjects’ participation in contributing to the greater emancipation of Arab women, while at the same time conveying to an outside audience a very rich tradition of practice, relationships, and ideas that are so often misunderstood and misrepresented in the West.”

Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories #30, 2004, chromogenic print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Julia J. Norrell, in honor of Nell Hennessy) 2015.19.5242

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Sligh uses cyanotype printing, photomontage, and words to represent both personal memories and African American history. She Sucked Her Thumb is from her series Reframing the Past, made from 1984 to 1994, which she calls “a re-investigation and re-evaluation” of her family’s photo album. This contemplative self-portrait depicts Sligh reflecting on her childhood in a segregated neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia with words and pictures literally displayed as both positive and negative images. One of the oldest techniques in photography, the cyanotype or blueprint process uses light-sensitive iron salts rather than traditional silver-based chemistry to achieve its rich, deep blue tones.

Clarissa Sligh, She Sucked Her Thumb, 1989, cyanotype print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the FRIENDS of the Corcoran Gallery of Art) 2015.19.4483

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From the mid-1980s to the present, Simpson has created provocative works that question stereotypes of gender, identity, history, and culture, often by combining photographs and words. Two Necklines shows two circular and identical photographs of an African American woman’s mouth, chin, neck, and collarbone, as well as the bodice of her simple shift. Set in between are black plaques, each inscribed with a single word: “ring, surround, lasso, noose, eye, areola, halo, cuffs, collar, loop.” The words connote things that bind and conjure a sense of menace, yet when placed between the two calm, elegant photographs, their meaning is at first uncertain. But when we read the red plaque inscribed “feel the ground sliding from under you” and note the location of the word “noose” adjacent to the two necklines, we realize that Simpson is quietly but chillingly referring to the act of lynching.

Lorna Simpson, Untitled (Two Necklines), 1989, two gelatin silver prints with eleven plastic plaques, Gift of the Collectors Committee 2005.44.1.1–3

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And One is from Thomas’s Strange Fruit series, which explores the concepts of spectacle and display as they relate to modern African American identity. Popularized by singer Billie Holiday, the series title Strange Fruit comes from a poem by Abel Meeropol, who wrote the infamous words “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze; Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” after seeing a photograph of a lynching in 1936. In And One, a contemporary African American artist reflects on how black bodies have been represented in two different contexts: lynching and professional sports. Thomas ponders the connections between these disparate forms through his dramatic photograph of two basketball players frozen in midair, one dunking a ball through a hanging noose.

Hank Willis Thomas, And One, 2011, digital chromogenic print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York) 2015.19.5250

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Affiliated with Columbia University, the groundbreaking Eta chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity was established in 1911 to assist African American college students facing racial injustice. During the 1920s, Alpha Phi Alpha helped form athletic clubs that allowed black students to participate in collegiate sports that were otherwise inaccessible to them. In this symmetrical, tightly organized composition shot from a low angle, Van Der Zee conveys the confidence of these young athletes ready to compete as equals in a divided world.

James Van Der Zee, Alpha Phi Alpha Basketball Team, 1926, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (The Evans-Tibbs Collection, Gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr.) 2015.19.4507

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