At first glance, the life-sized photograph suggests that the woman in the painting is modeled after the woman seated next to the painting, and further inspection only supports this conclusion. The similarities are uncanny: same white shirt, same periwinkle coat, same cropped, copper-colored hair. Even their facial structures seem to correlate.
Of course, it’s impossible. The photograph–one of 16 by Andy Freeberg that constitute the Cantor Arts Center’s new exhibit, “Guardians: Photographs by Andy Freeberg, an Exhibition in Three Parts”–is titled “Altman’s Portrait of I.P. Degas, State Tretyakov Gallery.” The woman portrayed in the painting is I.P. Degas; the woman sitting beside the painting is a nameless guard at the Russian State Tretyakov Gallery.
When Freeberg traveled to Russia in 2008, his goal was to capture the way in which capitalism had transformed the formerly communist nation. Upon visiting, however, he changed his focus to rest on the elderly women who serve as museum security guards, who appear to possess a deep passion for their work despite long hours and little pay.
Their passion–as well as Freeberg’s–is apparent in “Guardians.” The photographs, shot on a 35-millimeter digital camera, are elegantly composed, with gorgeous use of shadows and negative space. But although Freeberg, a San Francisco-based photojournalist, has tremendous talent, it’s also inarguable that he was given some compelling material to work with. The guards, sitting by the paintings entrusted to them, are beautiful. Freeberg does them justice.
The exhibit is divided into three portions, with the first two, “Antiquity to the Enlightenment” and “19th & Early 20th Century,” focusing on specific time periods and the last featuring photographs by Freeberg of Cantor’s own security staff. While these images fall short of the breathtaking beauty of the first two sets–no doubt hindered by the fact that, unlike the Russian guards, Cantor’s guards are required to wear uniforms–they are nonetheless a sight to behold. Also, it’s pretty exciting when you recognize a face (as the woman standing next to me so astutely noted when she asked, “Hey, isn’t that the girl from the lobby?”).
This last portion of the exhibit is accompanied by a five-minute documentary on Cantor’s security staff, directed by Josie Johnson ‘13 and produced by Justin Warren ‘09. The brief video has Cantor guards reflect on their favorite pieces of art at the museum, a question that prompts the subjects to launch into amusing anecdotes on everything from Sunday school to childhood vacations in England.
As delightful as “Guardians” is, however, be warned: the three parts of the exhibit are located in three different portions of the Cantor Arts Center, leading to much confusion. This difficulty in navigation is only exacerbated by the fact that the building is currently undergoing some remodeling. Arm yourself with a map, but even so, expect to have to ask one of Cantor’s helpful guards for advice.
“Guardians” will be on display at the Cantor Arts Center until Jan. 6, 2013.