FACES. European Portrait Photography since 1990

PORTRAITS. This is an important collaboration of three European institutions; the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts (Brussels, Belgium), the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, who after a fruitful collaboration, present an exhibition of international stature along with its catalogue.

It is a synergy which reinforces each institution’s international profile, and promotes European photography as well as each country’s national artists.

The exhibition has already been shown with great success first in Brussels and then in Rotterdam in both institutions; it was embraced by the public and by the international press. This is underlined by its nomination in the Global Fine Art Awards 2015 which will take place in Miami!

It showcases around 200 works by 32 photographers and artists from 20 countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, USA, Ireland, Spain, Israel, Italy, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Ukraine, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Finland), who have left their mark in the course of these 25 years in the genre of portrait photography.


This is the first exhibition which looks back on the interesting developments which European portrait photography has experienced since 1989, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It signals a trend in the genre whereby the individual – famous or anonymous – and his or her social and cultural identity occupy centre stage. This artistic development takes place against the background of extremely rapid changes within Europe due to globalisation, migration, the advent of the internet and economic unification: changes which have focused on the notion of ‘identity’ since 1990. The exhibition raises questions about identity, culture and history and the relationship between the subject, the observer and the photographer.

As Frits Gierstberg, the head curator of the exhibition mentions: “With photographs, we are perfectly aware that what we are looking at is an image, a fabrication, a construction, and not a person as such. Yet a portrait does allow us to experience a confrontation with ‘the other person’. As we look at a portrait, we see the look first of all. We search out the eyes first, almost instinctively. Within a fraction of a second, we have assessed that look, his or her facial expression and the posture. The image then becomes the fleeting abstract substitute for a meeting in the flesh. This gives a portrait a special aura, which is foreign to photographic landscapes, still lifes and street scenes. This makes a photo portrait an exceptional genre, even within photography itself. The portrait has an effect on our experience of being human. It appeals to our sense of humanity. It postulates an identity for the other person or it raises questions, which leads to a degree of empathy as we put ourselves, rationally or emotionally, in the depicted person’s place. Secondly, in questioning our identity as a beholder, the portrait acts as a mirror. We have to relate to the other person, and by doing so, we see ourselves. This happens only if the image of that other person is a credible one”.

The photographers and visual artists selected for this exhibition are generally keenly aware of the continent’s rich, centuries-old tradition of portrait painting. They sometimes make deliberate reference to it or play around with historical conventions in their work. Whereas portraits have traditionally featured people of high social class or occupying important positions within society, these modern portraitists often choose to depict ordinary men and women involved in their everyday lives. However varied their work may be, its common feature is their compassionate, humanistic view of their subjects.

The typological portrait series produced by photographer and visual artist Thomas Ruff in the late eighties (part of which is shown here) played a pivotal role in the development of the genre. Ruff divested the portrait of all its externalities, turning it into a pure visual image.
Starting from this tabula rasa, countless other photographers have sought new forms and new approaches to the genre over the last twenty-five years.

The selected works, by combining artistic with social development, stand in a long European tradition of the portrayal or imagination of an individual person or a group of individuals, while also posing open questions regarding identity and artistic practices. The exhibition presents the works in the following sections: The Face as a mask, Tabula Rasa, Tradition and Innovation, The pose and the human perspective, Culture and Location, Identity within the group, Private and Public, Formal and Informal.

Head curator: Frits Gierstberg / Advisory board: Alexandra Athanasiadou, Christophe De Jaeger, Vangelis Ioakimidis, Gautier Platteau, Olga Sviblova

A publication entitled “European Portrait Photography since 1990”, covering work by all the photographers in the exhibition, has been issued to accompany the exhibition. (NL / ENG / FR, Kannibaal Publishers, Bozar, ISBN: 978-3-7913-4927-5)


The exhibition is presented as part of the 50th Dimitria Festival of the Municipality of Thessaloniki.

The exhibition is realized with the support of ΝΕΟΝ Organization for Culture and Development, Thessaloniki Port Authority, General Consulate of France in Thessaloniki, French Institute of Thessaloniki, Goethe Institut Thessaloniki.


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