by SEBASTIAN ZINN
An immaculate glass windowpane separates us from a woman in a flaxen dress, seated in a small diner at a booth with lemon-yellow upholstery. Her dress gives the brown veneer of the table a golden tinge. Reflections play across the windowpane, challenging our ability to establish what’s inside or outside the diner. A sliver of baby-blue sky in the upper left-hand corner signals that it is a bright, cloudless day. Five glazed, American-style donuts are stacked in a tower of confection on the table in front of her. She is taking the first bite from a sixth donut with her right hand. Her left forearm rests on the table, shielding her meal from the other diner-goers whose backs are turned at the bar behind her. Her eyes are focused on the window sill. If she were to raise them 45 degrees she would be looking into the camera’s lens. This is, after all, a photograph, created by the Portland-based portrait photographer, Lauren Hare. This photograph, entitled Secrets, was awarded a prize in the National Portrait Gallery’s triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The competition received 2675 entries for the 2019 cycle, and 46 finalists were selected from that pool. Two of this cycle’s six prize winners, including Hare, are women.
The goal of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition is to “celebrate excellence in the art of portraiture.” The competition pairs three National Portrait Gallery curators with four guest jurors, who are tasked with selecting artworks which “reflect the compelling and diverse approaches contemporary artists are using to tell the American story through portraiture.” This year’s prize winners and finalists submitted work in an eclectic range of media, including stop-motion drawing animation, inkjet prints, oil paint, video, acrylic, and ceramic.
Hare’s Secrets captures more than an individual likeness; it speaks to the contemporary American story. The image has a subtle allegorical quality to it, rendering a sober vision of consumerism. Portrait traditions ranging from Egyptian sarcophagi to Baroque portraits have long served to memorialize members of the social elite. Many of the works in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, such as portraits of contemporary celebrities including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Spike Lee, and Jeff Bezos, fulfill precisely this role. Secrets, however, captures not the likeness of a known or revered cultural figure, but the ennui, desire, dissatisfaction, and isolation familiar to many young Americans. The figure in the diner booth is an “everyman;” anyone living in 21st century America, trapped in the cycle of binge and ‘self-care’ consumerism can identify with this situation. By synthesizing these complex feelings into a single image, Hare, and her fantastically expressive model, Madison, allow viewers to confront them head on.
The woman in Secrets looks like she is engaging in (or resigning herself to), a deeply personal ritual, and her downcast expression and slumped shoulders tell us that she isn’t much enjoying it. Her body language seems guarded, subsumed within her own interiority. Perhaps she is dissatisfied with her reflection in the glass in front of her (an experience anyone with a front-facing camera can relate to). Secrets is almost an anti-advertisement for a donut chain. Rather than a jovial, American nuclear family indulging in a spontaneous trip to the donut shop on a sunny afternoon (“Daddy likes bear-claws, but mommy prefers chocolate with sprinkles”) we see one woman, alone in a public space, outnumbered by consumer goods without anyone to share them with. Somehow, Secrets seems to parody this experience without diminishing it.
Donuts are by no means the first props to appear in Hare’s portrait photographs. In one series (Still Life Portraits, 2017) she captured her models striking unnatural poses in surreal environments, surrounded by bizarre props, including fruits, vegetables, flowers, and glassware. The arrangements elicit the impression that the human subjects in her photographs are part of an elaborate still life, establishing an equivocation between animate and inanimate matter. “A lot of times my models will have to be very patient while I figure out where I want to put my props,” she tells me.
Hare thinks of her approach to portrait photography as being situated “somewhere between the biographical and the fictional.” Preferring to create honest representations of bodies, she never photoshops her subjects. The people in her portraits typically look at ease, as if we are encountering them on their own terms. It’s worth noting that smart-phones and references to the internet or social media––key drivers of contemporary culture’s obsession with images and our proclivity towards carefully curating online, image-based identities––are completely absent from her photographs.
Hare feels that her ability to coach her subjects is one of her greatest strengths as a photographer: “I like taking photos of people when their faces are relaxed. I try to portray my subjects with what I like to call humble regality––both humility and honor,” says Hare. This approach is particularly successful in her portrait series, “See Her,” which highlights the beauty, confidence, and vulnerability of women “50 years and wiser.” Her sets can also be extravagant, and the poses she has some models assume are meticulous––they aren’t always engaging in banal activities, like navigating the aisles at the grocery store. Still other photographs (like Secrets) possess a cinematic quality, weaving together micro-narratives on the basis of coincident materials and events, such as props, location, and context (See “The Long Drive Home”).
Hare realized that the tone or mood of Secrets has been a through line in her body of work. The ambiguity inherent in portraiture appeals to her: “A portrait doesn’t have to provide an answer, or tell the audience what to think, but perhaps alludes to a new perspective.” She used to travel across North America, working as an art model, and enjoyed discovering the suburbs and micro-communities of the American landscape, because it helped her realize how many different lives there are to be lived. Secrets carries forward and manifests this voyeuristic gaze. It enacts portrait photography’s capacity to open a window into another person’s reality, as if we were passing a restaurant on the street, our attention temporarily drawn to the characters inside. The photographer’s relationship to the woman in the window booth mimics our relationship to the subjects we can discover through portrait photography, especially those of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, August Sander, and Vivian Maier. As a medium, it provides a window into the life of another person, allowing us to speculate about the extent to which they may be “different from [us] in ways big or small, a lot or only the littlest bit like [us]” (Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker).
It’s difficult to exaggerate the significance of Hare’s achievement as a prizewinner. In 2016, the painter Amy Sherald became the first woman to be awarded first prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. That same year, she was commissioned by Michelle Obama to paint the former First Lady’s official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The prize initiated her “rise to fame,” and Sherald and Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama have been credited with doubling the National Portrait Gallery’s annual attendance and putting the Gallery “on the international map.”
Hare took her first art class––a series of three dark room classes at Portland Community College (PCC)––at age 21, in 2006. It changed her life, and she retook the class four times. “I was never swept away with something before photography, and it helped me develop more of an identity,” she says. She obtained an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at Marylhurst College in 2013, focusing on the therapeutic benefits of photography and Imagery-Sustained Healing. Although she enjoyed her psychology courses, she always felt that there was more that she could contribute, but she never knew how or with what.
Initially, Hare’s photography took as its subject rural settings, particularly ghost towns and building structures in a state of decay––prominent features of early 20th century American life which had been consigned to the fringes of contemporary society and reabsorbed by the natural landscape. In her latest series, Hare has once again trained her lens on rural America, attending rodeos in Oregon where she photographs strangers. She catches many of her subjects in the golden light of late afternoon. Most striking among these is an image of a cowboy seated in the first row overlooking a rodeo ring, cradling a sleeping baby against his chest. The cowboy’s tenderness is focalized, and the chaos of the proceedings around him blur into the background. Like Secrets, this portrait successfully translates the emotional life of its subject in a snapshot, giving voice not to late-capitalist disenchantment, but the bone-deep bond between parent and child.
Hare began to value photography as a non-verbal mode of self-expression while experimenting with self-portraiture early in her career. Today, she aspires to empower her subjects to explore their aspirations and identities through a visual medium. She believes that good portrait photography encourages its subjects to reflect back on their inherent strengths. “Eventually,” she tells me, “you learn that it’s not always about self-discovery, but about self-acceptance.”
Sebastian Zinn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. Since graduating in the Spring of 2018, he has been working as a freelance writer and editor covering a diverse range of topics, including economics, medicine, food, music, literature, film, fashion and visual and performance art.