Ryerson Image Centre
January 20–April 10, 2016
Two figures pose against an old building; one sticks out its tongue, an aged hand reaching up to hold a devilish mask over its unseen face. This photograph, Williamsville, Vermont (1972), from the portfolio Unitarian Universalist Church, Williamsville VT (1967–72) by Wendy Snyder MacNeil, is a self-portrait with the artist’s grandmother. But at first glance, their diminutive presence against the abstracted geometry of the weatherboard reminded me of someone else: the careful composition and playful use of masking as a refusal to meet the gaze of her own camera brought to mind the childhood work of Francesca Woodman—one of Snyder MacNeil’s most famous students.
Up until now, it is perhaps as an influential educator that this pioneer of experimental photographic portraiture is best known. Her teaching at Abbot Academy, Wellesley College, and later at Rhode Island School of Design had a profound impact not only on the development of individuals such as Woodman, Natalia Almada, Wendy Ewald, and Sylvia Wolf—but also the broader artistic direction of the institutions themselves.
This is, then, a timely exhibition bringing renewed attention to Snyder MacNeil’s own work. Drawn from the archive acquired by Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre and curated by her brother, Donald Snyder, it presents an overview of the artist’s career from early documentary series through to the films she began to produce in the early 1990s. Her well-known document of Boston’s open-air Haymarket (1968–70) is here, in its original exhibition format: unglazed, unframed, and mounted on Masonite, alongside the Irish Tinkers taken in County Galway between 1968 and 1969. Focusing on the human subjects that made up these very different tribes, both series recorded lifestyles and livelihoods on the brink of disappearance, the fragility of their existence echoed in their blurred shadows. This emphasis on the familial camaraderie of working life contrasts with the isolation of the lesser-known portraits in the unpublished series Special Children in a Special School, Massachusetts (c. 1975). In one example, Untitled [Boy at Special School], the young subject does not look out, but down, creating a distance and a frustrating lack of resolution. In another, the child’s profile against a blank background cannot help but recall the role of photography
in the nineteenth century’s visual construction of both mental and physiological disorder. With its deliberately unfinished composition, the series’ taped corners and fragmented layout seem designed to disrupt both sentimentality and easy aesthetic consumption. It is not comfortable viewing.
More celebratory of photography’s contribution to identity formation is Snyder MacNeil’s enduring exploration of family—in particular the ways in which lineage is sometimes only brought to light through the photograph’s tracing of genealogical similarities and echoes of resemblance. Intergenerational dialogues form the core of Biographies (1968–75), including dual images of the artist’s grandmother as both baby and elderly woman in My Grandmother (82nd Birthday) from 1974, reflected in her dressing-table mirror, resplendent in a paper party hat; and in the Album Pages created between 1976 and 1981, which combine found images to recreate visually the forgotten branches of the family tree.
It is in these prints that the artist introduced her innovative experimentation with platinum-palladium printing on tracing vellum, their surface texture inviting the tactile response central to the encounter with Hands (1976–83). Here, family relationships are traced through the anatomy of touch: solidly entrenched through the similar-yet-different geography of the hands of Son (Ronald) and Father (Vernon), from 1976, yet as fleeting as the gossamer delicacy of skin and fabric in My Grandmother’s Hand, with stocking (1978), whose torn surface is beginning to fray. And capturing the most intimate of family ties, Snyder MacNeil’s portraits of husband Ronald from 1975 to 1981 keep his eyes in tight focus, life size and at eye level, producing an experience of one-to-one viewing that is highly charged.
Yet in some of the most conceptually interesting works on view, the intimacy created by their painterly tonal range and soft and luminous vellum surfaces is applied in less familiar settings—onto colleagues’ faces in The Eight Tenured Members of the Art Department, Wellesley College (by rank) from 1980, whose names are replaced by their anticipated year of retirement, identity reduced to an illegible code; to the Twenty-One Artists of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (1983), whose grid-like installation is accompanied by a printout of MIT’s letter announcing the budget cuts that would result in each subject’s redundancy; and to her students in Class Portrait, Graduate Students in Photography, Rhode Island School of Design (1979–80), in which each sitter’s image is placed above a copy of their identity card, complete with its own mugshot. In emphasizing the human reality of each individual that transcends the limits of their institutionally proscribed identity, the intense encounter staged in Snyder MacNeil’s portraiture goes beyond the personal to remind us of the photograph’s innate and irresolvable tension— between the intimate and the objective, between sentimental trace and bureaucratic document in the institutional archive. Let’s see some more.
Harriet Riches, PhD, is a writer and lecturer in London, UK.