May 24, 2012
From now through Friday, you have the chance to do something special: choose a figure from American history to put in the American History Museum. As part as the Frame an Iconic American contest, the public has the chance to play curator, voting among five different choices to determine who will have a biographical portrait composed by artist Robert Weingarten.
Right now, salsa music queen Celia Cruz is in the lead with 44.6 percent of the vote, followed closely by World War II hero Audie Murphy, who has 34.2 percent. Women’s suffrage activist Alice Paul, inventor Samuel Morse and abolitionist Frederick Douglass round out the field. To read more about all of the candidates and to cast your vote, visit the museum’s blog, “O Say Can You See?“
The contest was inspired by an upcoming exhibition of Weingarten’s works that will open at the Ripley Center on July 2nd, “Pushing Boundaries,” which features 16 innovative digital composite portraits of a range of notable Americans, including Dennis Hopper, Hank Aaron and Sandra Day O’Connor.
The noted artist’s portraits are rather unusual in one particular sense: they don’t contain any images of the actual subject. Rather, the layered composites include photographs taken by Weingarten of a number of items and places that the subjects themselves chose to represent them. ”These sit in a unusual position in terms of the difference between portraiture and self-portraiture, because I ask the subjects to define their own list,” Weingarten says. “I go to a chosen icon and I ask, ‘If you were to make a self portrait, but you couldn’t photograph yourself or family members or friends, what would be the items that would metaphorically represent you?’”
Weingarten then photographs the selected items and creates a digital composite image, combining the elements to achieve a composition he feels represents the subject. “They’re layered compositions,” he says. “Especially in person, you can look through each layer to the one behind it, so it’s almost like you’re pulling back the metaphorical layers of a person.”
When Weingarten gets to work crafting a portrait of the contest winner, he’ll be presented with a new challenge: whoever wins won’t be around to tell him which items and places they want to be represented by. “All my previous subjects were alive, and I worked closely with them in terms of creating the list and understanding the relative importance of each of the things on it,” he says. “Now, I’ll be working with a curator, so it’ll be a little more of a historic look, rather than a personal look.”
While you’re waiting until July to see Weingarten’s acclaimed works at the Ripley Center, take the chance to vote now and have your say in whose portrait he creates next. Instead of collaborating with an American icon, he’ll be working with the American public. “It’s really intriguing,” he says. “I’m looking forward to see what excites the public, and who they want to see in the Smithsonian.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.