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Positively puny compared to the sprawling summer blockbuster exhibits on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, "The Public Portrait: Photographs by Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn" supports the notion that good things come in small packages. Modest but rewarding, this ironically low-profile show, ostensibly about high-profile portraits, achieves more than most exhibitions twice its size. Fewer than 50 images are needed to sketch concisely the history of photographic portraiture, to explore the aesthetic merit of commercial photography and the changing nature of celebrity, and to confirm the artistry of Steichen, Avedon and Penn.

Folks who encounter this unpublicized show -- most likely after losing their way to the adjoining "The Splendor of Rome: The 18th Century" -- might well anticipate seeing only familiar highlights from Vogue and Vanity Fair. Yet upon perambulating the one-room exhibit, you'd rightly wonder whether the Tambul warrior from New Guinea photographed by Penn qualifies as a celebrity, or if Avedon's searing images of his dying father would likely appear in Vogue. Instead of presenting only celebrity portraits that appeared in Condé Nast publications, this show surveys a broad range of images, from the famous to the exotic to the intensely personal.

"The Public Portrait" begins its history with a series of carte de visite images (so called because these diminutive portraits, about four by 2.5 inches, were derived from the 19th-century calling cards) by the man who patented the process in 1854, Andre Adolphe Disderi. Although not the earliest photographic portraits, which were made soon after the photograph was invented in the 1830s, they were the first to spark a worldwide craze for collecting and trading such images. The carte portraits owed their Pokémon-like popularity largely to their frequently famous subject matter: royalty such as the Duke of Polignac, artists and entertainers.

As the bland images of the duke attest, the demand for carte portraits was generally not attributable to their artistic merit. The physical likeness of the sitter was reproduced, but not his inner character. The photographic portrait, still in its infancy as an art form, had not yet reached the penetrating level of insight that painting had achieved earlier in the century.

Not coincidentally, the earliest examples of such intimate portraiture in "Public Portraits" are images made by Steichen, who was born in 1879 and was initially both a painter and a photographer. By the turn of the century, Steichen was using a photogravure process to produce sensitive images that resembled drawings or watercolors. While the two such images included in this exhibit, a 1901 self-portrait and a 1902 image of Rodin and his sculpture The Thinker, delight modern museumgoers with their soft-focus, painterly effect, viewers at the time were far from pleased. When the art editor of a German photographic magazine praised Steichen's work, readers responded so negatively that the editor resigned. Fellow photographers were no more enlightened. In its issue of October 3, 1901, Photography magazine disapprovingly said of one of Steichen's images: "What a thousand pities that it is not a portrait in the ordinary sense of the word."

After serving as director of aerial photography for the Allied forces in World War I, Steichen developed a more forceful modernist style, echoing painting trends at the time, that was perfectly suited to such fashion and celebrity-minded magazines as Vanity Fair and Vogue. Working for these publications in the '20s and '30s, Steichen made portraits of a broad range of cultural figures. "The Public Portrait" contains several noteworthy examples. In his portrayal of Greta Garbo, for instance, he employs diffuse lighting to capture an otherworldly demeanor that reinforces the Garbo mystique. With the critic H.L. Mencken, Steichen catches a pugnacious look that crosses Mencken's face, half-covered in shadow, a metaphor for his caustic wit. Although commissioned for a magazine, these arresting images not only succeed commercially, they also represent true artistic achievement. Steichen uses the tools of the artist -- lighting, pose, facial expressions -- to create personal, intimate images that transcend mere journalistic documentation of a sitter's likeness.

The range of cultural figures in Steichen's portraits indicates how the nature of celebrity has changed over the years. Steichen predominantly photographed people of real accomplishment, such as writer Sherwood Anderson and choreographer Martha Graham, whose images appear in the show. "The Public Portrait" includes other images, mostly pre-'70s, whose subjects are equally accomplished: Ernest Hemingway (1957), Barnett Newman (1966) and Igor Stravinsky (1946 and 1969). But as historian Daniel Boorstin has noted, where celebrities were once famous for their serious achievements, they can now simply be someone "who is known for his well-knownness." The most recent photograph in the show, Annie Liebowitz's infamous 1992 Vanity Fair cover image of a nude Demi Moore wearing a painted-on suit, perfectly illustrates Boorstin's point. Moore, who is no Garbo, is known less for her acting than for her physical assets, and her strict surface appeal is precisely what Liebowitz exploits.

Irving Penn, the subject of a recent retrospective at the MFA, has taken more than his share of celebrity photos, but like Steichen, he has worked in several other genres. One fruitful area has been his ethnographic studies conducted in New Guinea, Morocco and other far-flung locales. While a Tambul warrior is not a star in popular culture, his image turns out to have much in common with celebrity portraits. In this striking close-up, Penn focuses on the warrior's massive right fist and fearless eyes, conveying individual pride and inner strength as well as the sitter's embodiment of the Tambul warrior culture. Celebrity photos, at least when made by an artist like Penn, similarly combine the individual and the archetypal. For instance, Penn's clever image of a monocled Barnett Newman mimics, in the eyewear's strap, the "zips" or vertical lines that Newman included in his abstract paintings. The monocle as affectation suggests both Newman's grand ambitions as an artist and the unconventional spirit of creative individuals.

Using nontraditional techniques that distinguish him from Penn and Steichen, Avedon makes photos that cut a surprisingly broad swath through society. An iconic portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, with the duke's image spread across two frames, highlights the sitters' furrowed faces and necks in order to register the harsh reality of the duke's fairy-tale renunciation of the throne. At the opposite end of the social spectrum are the deeply personal images chronicling the last years of Avedon's father's life. The artist uses serial imagery to document not only his father's harrowing decline, but also the range of emotions Avedon himself experiences. The stark white backgrounds help to elevate this series from the personal to the symbolic; the isolation of Avedon's father in a featureless environment turns these images of an individual into an essay on aging, death and the father-son relationship.

Clearly Avedon, Penn and Steichen have taken photographic portraiture a long way from merely recording a celebrity's likeness in a carte de visite. They've proved that, like painters, photographers have the tools and techniques necessary to reveal inner character as well as to comment on society and culture. That the MFA has managed to make this point with such brevity, in the end, is no small achievement.

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David Gerst