The Art of Serial Portraiture

This past fall I read about an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art entitled The Serial Portrait.  The concept intrigued me, so on a trip to DC I took a look. The exhibit presented photographs of the same subject over time, and included images by Alfred Stieglitz, Lee Friedlander, Paul Strand, André Kertész, and others. As someone interested in visual aspects of growing old, this got me to think about serial portraiture in my own work, so I decided to publish a series featuring my own years.

I dug back into my sketchbooks and photos for self portraits and put together the slideshow above. It starts with a pencil drawing from when I was thirteen years old and proceeds through high school, college, medical school, and beyond. It traces my transition in media through pen & ink, oils, watercolor, and photography using cameras ranging from Leica to iPhone, in places that include Jersey City, Newark, Mexico, the Middle East, and Manhattan.  I chose images which reflect states of mind or critical junctures in my life, rather than smiling representations empty of meaning.

Art is a medium for transformation of culture, society, and the self. Portraiture conveys likeness and character, and memorializes life events. A single image conveys a view of one point in time, but when several are placed on a continuum it exposes transformations of personal identity and the molding of a human life. Art has the power to convey identity and reveal how that identity can evolve. I’ve sometimes struggled to reconcile my life as a physician with my drive to make art, and this is revealed in the images above.

As a child I fantasized about being an artist, but there was little room for the studio in a pre-medical curriculum that demanded high grades in biology, chemistry and physics. The time and effort required to develop a career as a medical doctor often squeezed art to the periphery, but it never was far away. My artwork followed me, even though I sometimes made a conscious effort to leave it behind. Once I realized how important it was I turned to embrace it. Much had fallen to the wayside, but a lot remained.

Putting this post together was an exercise in self-exploration. Viewing the kaleidoscope of time allows me to see more clearly where I’ve been and where I am going in this journey of life, medicine, and art.

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Related posts:

Sketching on the Left Bank
Visiting Doctor Chekhov

Medical School Memories

My Patient With the Tattoo

Art, Geriatrics, and Venice Beach

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Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine has authored numerous articles on topics related to healthcare of the elderly. These include medical history, prevention and treatment of chronic wounds such as pressure ulcers, elder neglect and abuse, and physical restraints. He has also edited a book on legal and regulatory aspects of nursing homes.