Rachel Portesi photography at Griffin Museum of Photography

On September 8, 2022, the Griffin Museum of Photography (67 Shore Road, Winchester, MA) will open a solo exhibition of artist Rachel Portesi photography, featuring a selection of collodion tintypes that examine the complexities of the female experience. The pictures include nuances of sexuality, motherhood, aging, and choice— through whimsical staged portraits taken on vintage large-format cameras. A selection of 8 x 10 polaroids will also be on display as well as 3D viewmasters with video footage of her process, which includes a hours-long process of concocting elaborate hair sculptures, constructed in her studio,  representing change and self-reflection.

I have written about Rachel Portesi photography previously at Forbes.com, particularly her “Hair Portraits,” are a series of tintype photographs of female and femme-identifying models–all friends of the artist–of varied ages and ethnicities who consider hair to be a large part of their identity.

Each tintype photograph in “Hair Portraits” is the culmination of hours Portesi spends making a collaborative ‘hair sculpture’ with the model as the model stands against a wall. The subject’s hair is fastened to the wall with push pins, intricately intertwined with symbolic objects such as fresh flowers, twigs, large plant fronds, family heirlooms and mementos, and additional flora from Portesi’s garden in Vermont and a nearby flower farm. Several of the ‘hair sculptures’ also use ceiling-suspended fishing line for additional volume.

Why hair?

“I have very long, thick hair myself, as did my mom and step-mother,” Portesi told me. “Somehow, my hair makes me feel generationally connected to the women in my family. I think of the power and strength in the lives they lived and that they also lived full complicated lives with an internal world just as I do.”

Rachel Portesi at work.
Rachel Portesi at work.

Why tintype?

“I like making tintypes because they are a complicated form of instant photography – like an old-fashioned Polaroid made on a light sensitive metal plate, Portesi said. “Each image is a direct positive and one of a kind because there is no negative.”

The light exposure on Portesi’s tintypes lasts 26 seconds. After pouring developer over the plate, it is then placed in a fixer where the image begins to appear out of a bluish cloud.

“It always feels like a surprise,” the artist said of the results. “When making tintypes, much like life, you never quite get what you set out for and the process is fraught with both disappointment and delight at what emerges.”

Progressing through the stages of motherhood further inspired Portesi’s work.

“When I became a mother, I produced a body of work about the loss of my self-identity, and the transformation to mother as my priorities and responsibilities shifted,” she said. “As I exited the most intense and all-consuming phase of motherhood, I was left without a firm understanding of who I was. The person I was before entering motherhood no longer fit and I was left feeling lost and uncertain. I had to redefine myself as a woman and I did so in the making of these images.”

The project also served to deepen her connection to the other mothers in her family.

“When I was collecting pieces of hair as mementos from my family for this project, my parents sent the small blond curl of my father’s hair saved by my grandmother the first time she cut it–she’d taped to the back of his baby picture,” Portesi recalls. “At that moment I felt so connected to my grandmother, I got goosebumps and was moved to tears. She was not just my grandmother, she was a woman, a woman who loved her son–my father!–as much as I love my son. I laid my father’s hair next to my own son’s small blond curl from the first time I cut his hair.”

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