The best portraits will capture the essence of a person, revealing a sense of who she is in a single image. Traditionally, in portraiture, the subject is prominently displayed; her face and body make up the composition.
But in 2007, California-based photographer Robert Weingarten got an idea for a portrait project in which his subjects would never pose in front of a camera.
"I have a little notebook where I jot down ideas, and I wondered, 'Can you represent a person photographically without actually showing their visage?' " Weingarten remembers over the phone from his home in Malibu.
He set out to make a new type of "portrait" of people — digital collages featuring images not of the people's bodies but of places and objects that metaphorically represent the individuals. Factor in celebrity subjects — including Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, music and film producer Quincy Jones, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor — and the result is "Portraits Without People," Weingarten's collection of portraits of 26 well-known composers, artists, sports figures, and legal legends.
Locals can catch his work displayed in the show "Living Legends: The Montage Portraits of Robert Weingarten," at the Norton Museum of Art before it closes September 7. Weingarten will also make a museum appearance on November 6 along with Don Shula and curator Tim B. Wride, the museum's William and Sarah Ross Soter curator of photography, for a panel discussion.
To make these portraits, Weingarten, who has shown work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution, sent out a request asking each participant to compile a list of all the things, places, and ideas that influenced his or her life.
They sent it back, and he met with each of the 26 subjects in person before creating the digital montages. "There are three things close to Don Shula's heart: football, golf, and religion," says Weingarten. "He goes to church every day. So what I did in that photograph is merged the church and the football stadium. If you look at it closely, you'll see a cross in it and find table and chairs from his restaurant."
Each photograph — five feet wide by three feet high — is supersaturated with color, yielding a commanding presence in the cavernous gallery space at the museum. The compositions are constructed with similar techniques employed by painters but with the aid of a computer.
Photos of the original lists filled out by each subject are mounted on the wall next to the images. Some of the lists were typed; some were handwritten. Some are on stationery; some are on legal pads. Including the lists as part of the exhibit draws viewers to intently look at the work, trying to find all the items in the images, says Wride. "I kid with Bob [Weingarten] that he's become the 'Where's Waldo?' of the photo set," chuckles Wride.
Looking at the pictures, viewers wonder about the significance of the objects pictured. One item that stood out, comically, was in the portrait of Chuck Close, renowned painter and photographer, Wride says. Close included a selection of Bounty paper towels. Why paper towels? He didn't provide an explanation, Wride says. The portraits can also encourage viewers to think about what they would include on their own lists for such a project.
Wride worked as head of the department of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for 14 years. That's where he became familiar with Weingarten's work. Wride has now been at the Norton for just under three years. He says "Living Legends" was bestowed to the Norton through a California private collector.
"No one is approaching portraiture like this," Wride says. "For me, photography comes down to the ideas. It's more than the image. It's always about the idea and how the idea and the image are able to balance one another, without the image being an illustration of the idea or the idea being a caption of the image."