Harry Ransom Center
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Dress Up

Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography

September 4, 2007 – December 30, 2007

Portrait and genre photography of the Victorian period typically employs vivid artifice and unconcealed theatricality, placing it in opposition to today's conventional portraiture. The Victorians embraced a coexistence of fact and fiction, and in these images we find that masquerade, costume, and performance all become elements of identity, regardless of whether the photographer's purpose is portraiture, documentary, or fine art.

This exhibition will present two groups of images for comparison. In the first group, models and sitters are staged, costumed, and presented so as to indicate or perform roles of some kind, whether literary, artistic, or purely imaginary. In the second group, models and sitters are instead costumed and photographed so as to represent themselves as embodiments of specific roles or well-defined identities. In essence, the first group brings together images of people dressed to play someone else, while the second has images of people posing to reveal the self. In true Victorian fashion, however, all of these subjects are "playing" roles, so many images will occupy a middle ground between the extremes of identity and theatricality.

Visitors to the exhibition can take their own portrait in the exhibition's photographic studio, complete with scenic backdrop.