To most people who have ever attended school, sitting for a school photo is a recognizable annual rite of passage. For those who can afford it, the white envelope with prints arrives, opened secretively then proudly shared with friends and family, or ashamedly hidden in the recesses of a dresser drawer. It is a ritual which at once unites and divides along lines of appearance, status, ability, language, and adherence to the perceived norms demanded by society.
“School Photos and Their Afterlives” at the Hood Museum of Art from January 8 through April 12, has taken the commonality of the school photo and elevated it to a conveyance of historical significance and social accountability. Drawing on vast archival photographic records augmented by the work of artists including Marcelo Brodsky, Steven Deo, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Mirta Kupferminc, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Diane Meyer, Vik Muniz, Lorie Novak, José Clemente Orozco, Sandra Ramos, Tomoko Sawada, Abdel Salam Shehada, Carrie Mae Weems and David Wojnarowicz, the exhibition highlights both the universal and highly personal depictions of this largely underrepresented genre. A panoply of archival originals and digital reproductions trace back to Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Canada, France, Lithuania, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, the former Soviet Union and the United States.
While the social histories documented often tragic, it is the graceful fortitude and enduring spirit of each of those portrayed which endure. Themes of conformity and isolation; sameness and distinction are woven together in a finely-crafted whole celebrating the individual above the imposed pressures of the times they represent. Defined through context as well as content, the symbolic weight of an expression or gaze, clothing worn, and often physical surroundings propel each work into the realm of visual allegory.