The McCord Museum presents a new exhibition as a part of their Artist-in-Residence program: In the Studio with Notman by photographer Marisa Portolese. The program invites artists to explore the connection between their art and the artifacts found in the Museum’s collections. Inspired by the stories and objects they uncover, they create a solo show that is presented at the end of the residency.
In 2016, Portolese presented the series Belle de Jour III: Dialogues with Notman’s Portraits of Women. Her familiarity with the works of William Notman made her a great candidate for the Artist-in-Residence program. She was invited to continue the conversation and explore the McCord’s Notman Photographic Archives for the creation of her solo show. This is one of North America’s most extensive private collections.
The artist chose to study the decor of traditional studio photography in Notman’s portraits of women. She focused on the backdrops and props used. Notman used these items to create an illusion of the subject in the studio being outdoors or in a fancy Victorian house for example. Portolese, however, uses them mainly to enhance the beauty of the photograph.
Her process was fascinating. She staged her portraits in a style reminiscent of Notman’s. We notice it in the position of the models, the facial expressions and of course the decor. In this way, she captured the similarities between women of very different eras.
Portolese’s subjects were a diverse set of women from her community. They were of varying ages, ethnicities and occupations. The women chose their own outfits to showcase their unique personalities and to become a part of the environment created by the photographer. She gave them detailed descriptions of her ideas and mood boards to set the scene. She then snapped a picture using an analog view camera and only natural light.
The portraits draw us in. The women have natural and neutral expressions which are in tune with the subjects of Notman’s time. It is also refreshing to see contemporary portraits without a staged “say cheese!” smile. This must be because Portolese chatted with the subjects during the photo session, putting them at ease and empowering them to pose confidently. The backdrops were enlarged images of floral paintings from various artists, which created a beautiful and ethereal look.
Two exciting details caught our attention. In true Notman style, the title of each photo is the name of the model. A short biography also accompanies each photo, briefly mentioning the subject’s profession, studies or interests. It was as if we had just met them in person. With her 16 large-scale portraits, Portolese creates a beautiful community between the subject, the photographer, and the viewer.
You can visit the exhibition from May 25, 2018, to February 10, 2019. The McCord will be offering related activities such as a talk with the artist and the curator (Hélène Samson) as well as a roundtable discussion. To get a glimpse into the mind of the artist and the inspiration behind her portraits, a stunning photo book is available at the museum shop. For more information and for tickets you can visit the Museum website here.