Come face to face with Hockney, Scorsese and Patti Smith in New York

One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting, 2021 © Tacita Dean

A new exhibition at the International Center of Photography brings together portraits of famous faces by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe and Catherine Opie

There are few creative moments more intimate than taking someone’s portrait. As revealing as it is private, it is a collaboration between sitter and photographer. Looking at a portrait can be like listening in on a conversation, witnessing the moment.

“I think all art is time travel,” says Helen Molesworth, curator of the International Center of Photography’s new exhibition Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe and Catherine Opie. Molesworth is fascinated with the “transhistorical” exchange between the sitter, photographer and viewer. “We’ve been making pictures of individuals for well over 600 years,” she says. “We never stopped. [Portraiture] took hold, and we keep doing it. There’s a reason for that.”

Patti Smith, New York, NY, 2014 © Brigitte Lacombe
Maya Angelou, New York, NY, 1987 © Brigitte Lacombe

Opening on 27 January, the exhibition draws on this eternal reading of the portrait. Having sat for both Catherine Opie and Brigitte Lacombe, Molesworth muses over the power of portrait photography from this unique personal experience.

“The more I look at the work of Opie and Lacombe, the more I realise I was in the presence of artists with extraordinary senses of their own craft,” she explains. Dean, Lacombe and Opie were chosen for the show due to their long-term commitments to portraiture, particularly in balancing tradition with contemporary perspectives.

The exhibition focuses on their portraits of notable artists and personalities, including Maya Angelou, Richard Avedon, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Didion, David Hockney, Miranda July, Rick Owens, Martin Scorsese and Patti Smith. These ‘artists on artists’ photographs weave a web of visionaries, inviting the viewer into a conversation.

“The more I look at the work of Opie and Lacombe, the more I realise I was in the presence of artists with extraordinary senses of their own craft”

Jerome Caja, 1993 © Catherine Opie

More than 50 photographs by Lacombe and Opie are on display, accompanied by two films by Tacita Dean. In preparation for the show, Molesworth dived into the “great depths” of the artists’ archives. “We’re only seeing the crust of multi-decade practices,” she says. Molesworth speaks of Opie’s dedication to queer liberation, Lacombe’s “nomadic” approach, and Dean’s sensitive studies of elder artists. 

“Nothing could be more different than the ways the three set up the portrait. I love the spaces in which [they] contact and diverge,” Molesworth adds. She highlights how the three play a game of “call-and-response” with technique and tradition, picking and dropping photographic and portrait conventions as they please.

The exhibition reflects on craft and conversation: between artist and sitter, viewer and image, and a wider interaction happening between the three photographers and the canon of portraiture. Through a history of artistic connection and camaraderie, the portraits hint at an intimate understanding happening in and out of the frame.

Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe, and Catherine Opie is at The International Centre of Photography, New York, from 27 January to 1 May

Face to Face is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by ICP and MACK, London, with essays by Helen Molesworth and writer and curator Jarrett Earnest.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.