Captioning portraits

While most reviews of visual art exhibitions write about the layout and presentation of shows, they very rarely concern themselves with critiquing the wall text and captions of the images on display. However, for this week’s post I am going to discuss the way in which captions are written, especially when it comes to portraits.

Last week, a friend suggested we go to the new Snowdon display at the National Portrait Gallery, which consists of a series of photographs donated to the gallery by Lord Snowdon in 2013, mostly of celebrities and royals. The exhibition was well presented and the compositions of many of the photographs were striking, yet, instead of commenting on this, the captions decided to inform the viewer about the lives of celebrity x, y and z. This is all very well and good, however, unless you have been living under a rock for half of your life, chances are you already know who David Bowie is and don’t need a paragraph to explain why he is such an icon.

Of 130 donated prints, only 30 or so are on display, the subjects of nearly all of which are celebrities. This poses many questions: firstly, is the gallery trying to show us merely the most well-known personalities in order to attract less artistically inclined viewers and secondly, are only famous people worth while being put on display?!

Unfortunately the format taken up by the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the norm for the majority of exhibitions concerning portraiture. The exhibition title is not ‘Snowdon, Maggie Smith, Barbara Hepworth and their celebrity chums’, so why has the concept of explaining and analysing what it is that makes these images art been taken out of the captions. The gallery fails to praise Snowdon’s photographic talent in favour of fanning over the well-known personalities featured in the display. The exhibition is not about celebrities therefore why should it matter if it is the King or an unknown off of the street within the picture.

You will notice that in galleries where the identity of the sitter within a portrait is unknown, the caption of the image will more often that not discuss the formal qualities of the picture instead of give an account of the life story of them. I don’t see why this format should not apply to images of celebrities. Yes, maybe give a sentence of two explaining who they are, but a whole paragraph seems a little excessive when image captions are already reduced to such minuscule word counts.

I am by no means saying that the relationship between artist and sitter is not important. However, I do feel that the artistic processes that go into making a portrait should be given more recognition.

That said, I encourage you to visit the exhibition and decide for yourselves!

Snowdon: A Life in View is on display at National Portrait Gallery until 21 June 2015

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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