The Spirit Within: Faces in the Philadelphia Art Community

Lawrence Gallery, Rosemont College, through Oct 29, 2015

By Anne R. Fabbri

The Spirit Within: Faces in the Philadelphia Art Community

Posing for one of Judith Harold-Steinhauser’s black and white portrait photographs must have taken courage: they reveal so much about the individual. The 23 examples from 1996 to 2002 in this exhibition at the Lawrence Gallery, Rosemont College eliminate all extraneous detail, focusing on features that cannot be masked. You are what you are, not necessarily the impression you might like to project.

Although using Polaroid film, called Positive and Negative, this was no quick snap and print job. The process usually required two and a half to three hours with each person and entailed twelve to sixteen images. She chose artists as her subject matter because they would understand that there is a process, often lengthy, in making art. Many of her subjects said it felt like meditation. Some of the best images happened towards the end of the session, when initial reserve has disappeared and the process has become familiar and comfortable.

“I always take a document photograph at the beginning of the session,” explained Steinhauser. “Gradually we get to the point where the person is revealing, not concealing.”

The results are what you see in the gallery. Nine female and fourteen male faces look out at you or beyond you: full frontal images and, more common, heads turned at a slight angle. Eyes and mouths are most prominent, even pores and wrinkles are revealed. Strands of hair seem to contrast texture. This is primarily what you see, no decorative fabrics or jewelry to distract you.

Working with a large view camera and a black overhead cloth, she employed a strobe and opened the shutter for a brief period. With no manipulation in the darkroom, the four-by-five inch negatives are enlarged to twenty by sixteen. The results confirm her vision of using the face as her canvas. This is what you see. The faces are filled with emotion: some defiant, others anxious, one smiling face, another cruel. We can lose ourselves staring at a cross section of humanity. Can we take it? Do we really want to face reality? It is an individual decision.

Currently Judith Harold-Steinhauser has changed her subject matter to flowers and gardens. She has nature to deal with—sudden showers, strong winds and constantly changing skies—but no longer must interact with the variable emotions of her subject.  Or do flowers have issues with life itself?