Bismarck once described Napoleon III as a sphinx without a riddle. Every person, in that sense, is a sphinx. The interesting ones have riddles. Photographic portraits make an attempt at solving them.
The work of four photographers is currently on display at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University: Caleb Cole, Myra Greene, and Lorenzo Triburgo, in “Framed: Identity and the Photographic Portrait,” and Lydia A. Harris, in “Collier Heights.” Each takes a different approach to the portrait and the riddle-solving it entails. The shows runs through Oct. 12.
The 10 photographs from Caleb Cole’s series “Other People’s Clothes” (a great title) are about constructing whom out of what. Cole chooses an item of clothing or ensemble, imagines the sort of person who might wear it, then finds a location where such an individual might be found. He then takes a self-portrait wearing those clothes in that place. The classic actor’s dilemma is whether to assemble a character from the inside out (the Method being the most famous example) or outside in. Cole is an outside-in man. The results range from the melancholy to the amusing. All are distinctive, some disturbingly so.
Gender is what interests Lorenzo Triburgo in his series “Transportraits.” They show transgendered men, all in the same way. Each sitter strikes a visionary pose, eyes uplifted. In the background is a formulaic landscape, painted by Triburgo. The effect is disorienting, and not necessarily as Triburgo intends. These people have had to struggle to create identities for themselves and to find social settings in which those identities might flourish. Triburgo’s creating his own kitschy settings for them seems the reverse of their experience. The photographs have the look of Soviet Realism, except that it’s not participating in the Bolshevik Revolution that’s earned these people their full-hero treatment. It’s the sexual revolution.
Racial identity is the concern of both Myra Greene and Lydia A. Harris. For “My White Friends” Greene, who is African-American, asked acquaintances who were white to discuss what she calls “the qualities of their racial identity.” She then photographed them in the context of their whiteness. It’s a kind of reverse stereotyping, a display of social ease and acceptance: a woman with golf clubs, a man and woman on a lakeside dock, and so on. The series recalls Barbara Norfleet’s “All the Right People” and the work of Tina Barney. Presumably the similarity is unintentional, since the comparison isn’t to Greene’s advantage.
If Cole arrives at identity through accessories, Harris does so through location. For four years, she’s been photographing residents and their homes in the Collier Heights section of Atlanta. The neighborhood was developed in the 1950s and ’60s by and for middle-class African-Americans. Portraits of home-owners are paired with photographs of their house or a room in it, along with accompanying biographical texts and comments from Harris’s sitters. Where Greene’s approach is essentially anthropological, Harris’s is sociological. The riddle requiring a solution comes not from a sphinx but society. It remains unsolved, if nowhere near as much so as when these houses were built.