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photo-eye Book Reviews: American Portraits

American Portraits 1979-1986. Photographs by Leo Borensztein.
Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011.
American Portraits
Reviewed by Adam Bell

American Portraits 1979-1986.
Photographs by Leo Borensztein.
Nazraeli Press, Portland, 2011. Hardbound. 96 pp., 60 duotone illustrations, 11x13".


Portraiture is always an exchange, wanted or unwanted, between the artist and the subject. More often than not, the subject is willing and submits. As subjects, there is always a degree of performance whether intentional or not. We chose certain outfits, wear or adjust make-up, adopt a pose that reflects our assumed identity or simply strike a photogenic pose learned by practice or through other images. Diane Arbus famously stated that her images explored “the gap between intention and effect.” This is rich territory for any photographer. Add to that tension the richness of history, race and class, and there is an even greater possibility for complex and engaging work.

Leon Borensztein was born in Poland, studied art in Israel, and eventually immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Settling in California, he continued his studies in San Francisco and took a job as a traveling portrait photographer. The commercial work he produced was all shot in color and taken in the homes of the working class families. In addition to the images he made for his clients, Borensztein also produced his own work in black and white using the same simple backdrop and lights, but often pulled back to reveal the subject's humble living spaces.

American Portraits, by Leo Borensztein. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011.
American Portraits, by Leo Borensztein. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011.
While Borenzstein exhibited and received acclaim for the work at the time, it has largely disappeared for various unknown and perhaps all too common reasons. Fortunately, Todd Hido helped revive interest in the work and eventually got it published. One of the many surprises and pleasures of art is the way work can gain new currency and meaning as it ages and is rediscovered by new audiences and generations. It would be untrue to say that this work was unknown or had completely disappeared. The most obvious answer might just be that the ever-fickle art and photo world had moved on. Although over twenty years old, the work has been given new life and attention through this wonderful new book.

American Portraits, by Leo Borensztein. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011.
The portraits are all very straight forward and show the people either in their homes or interior space against a plain backdrop. Although clearly directed by Borensztein, the subjects are equal collaborators -- choosing elaborate or modest outfits and striking dramatic or humble poses with loved ones, pets or children. In just a few of the images we see a man in Native American attire sternly posing with a rifle as a small child watches, a young boxer standing ready alongside an American flag, and a sad boy holding a photograph of an absent father-figure. While the individual images are all strong, the pairing and juxtapositions are also especially poignant and funny. In one example, a woman with painted eyebrows and elaborately coifed hair is paired with a photograph of an unbelievably hairy man's shoulders and neck. Shot from behind, the curly hair on the man's neck is shocking in its profusion and delightfully plays off the woman's own carefully curled hair and polka-dotted dress.

Despite their simplicity, the portraits are shocking in their emotional complexity and rich sociological detail. Like the photographs of August Sanders, one of the most obvious influences, along with photographers such as Mike Disfarmer, the work's complexity derives in part from the way in which history, class and identity are inscribed and revealed in the work. From the swastika-tattooed man coldly staring into the lens to the proudly defiant African-American man in a three-piece suit, Borensztein's subjects reveal the diverse racial and social landscape of his new American home. Pulled back, the portraits offer us glimpses of the subject's homes (and the occasional small child), but also highlight the artifice of the makeshift studio set-up, the subjects' theatrical poses, and the portrait process itself.

American Portraits, by Leo Borensztein. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011.
American Portraits, by Leo Borensztein. Published by Nazraeli Press, 2011.
While the images are often playfully humorous, there is also an underlying sadness that permeates the work. In discussing his work, Borensztein has stated that his "images reflect the alienation so typical of today's America." When Borensztein began the project, the United States was in the midst of an unusual period of social malaise and disillusionment. The promise of the 60s and 'Summer of Love' had given way to race riots, economic stagnation and oil shortages. In the 80s, Reagan's 'Morning in America' offered hope to many, but existed under the shadow of the Cold War, as well as continuing economic and social inequities. In this context, the work offers us a nuanced portrait of the struggles, hopes and reality of working class America in California and the West from the late 70s to the late 80s.

Exhibiting both compassion and sardonic wit, the images reveal a great deal not only about Borensztein's subjects, but also about American society and the complexities of portraiture. Superbly edited and sequenced by Hido, the book brings attention to an important body of work that has slipped below the radar for too long. As the work so deftly illustrates, the "gap" that so interested Arbus is remarkably deep and complex. It illuminates much more than our humorous shortcomings, but is infused and wrought with social and cultural complexity and nuance. In this case, it lays bare the heartrending disparity between the promise of America and the harsh reality of what most of us can really achieve. It highlights the way social, cultural and historical forces much larger than ourselves circumscribe and define our lives, hopes and aspirations. In this sense, the project is perfectly named, because if these images are nothing else, these are truly American portraits.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.

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