“Every picture tells a story,” Rod Stewart sings in the lyrics that also are the rock classic’s title. That song could be the soundtrack of the Pratt Museum’s latest exhibit, “Familiar Faces: Portraits of Community.”
Showing through May, the exhibit pulls together photographs, paintings and artifacts from the museum’s collection. Familiar faces include museum namesake Sam Pratt, the late Betty Miller of the Miller Comb Museum, veteran fisherman and Alaska politician Clem Tillion, and portraits of people whose name you can’t recall, but have seen around town.
“This exhibit explores how portraits, even in their broadest sense, can go beyond documenting the connections that we make very day, and draws upon threads of storylines that track degrees of separation around the globe and throughout history,” Pratt Museum Curator of Collections Savanna Bradley writes in her “A Message from the Curator.”
There’s a display of small photos people carried, like a photo of Pratt’s mother and the Bible he tucked it in while serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. Photos appear even on campaign buttons, like those of Homer City Council candidates Mike Yourkowski or Bill Smith.
Those pocket photos also illustrate the democratization of photography, making it accessible not just for the rich.
“It made carrying a person’s likeness available to the middle class,” Bradley said.
For “Familiar Faces,” the Pratt also asked photographers Joshua Veldstra and Christina Whiting to contribute more recent interpretations of portraits. Photographer, historian and writer Clark Fair also researched and wrote short articles about the people in some of the photos and paintings. Veldstra, who’s known for his bright, colorful portraits of people in the natural setting of Kachemak Bay, chose stark, grainy black-and-white photos he did for an image-a-day social media challenge.
Whiting took a different approach. Portraits often are thought of as people’s faces, but she chose to focus on their hands and the activity of them, like a paint brush being dipped in paints on a palette. There the story is told not in the expressions or pose of the face, but in the movement of the hands.
The exhibit also sets portraits in the context of the time. One display case holds four formal black-and-white portraits of Homer Winter Carnival queens arrayed around the crown and scepter they wore during their reigns — the crown seen in each photo. With their teased bouffant hairdos, the women evoke an era when few blinked at beauty pageants and feminists were just raising issues about the objectification of women.
“A portrait has not only what’s going on in the context of that image, but what’s going on in the community at the time — what’s going on with the photo,” Bradley said. “There are so many ways of telling the story.”
Jennifer Gibbins, Pratt Museum Director, said the Winter Carnival portraits fascinated her in what they say about a time 50 years or more ago.
“It’s both a reflection of the community and the community’s history and the individuals,” she said. “… Every one of those images invites people to reflect on those changing norms, particularly so in our time.”
The idea for “Familiar Faces” came as part of the museum’s initiative to come up with exhibits to fill holes in its schedule caused by projects canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bradley said they were trying to come up with another idea that explored its collections.
“Having ‘Familiar Faces’ was a way of exploring the collection in a new way and search for the known and the unknown,” she said.
Bradley said curating the exhibit led her to do some research. One photo shows Marion Johnson in 1962 holding half of a fossil fish concretion. The Pratt has a half of a fossil fish concretion, which made Bradley wonder if that was the same object Johnson held. As it turned out, she held the half of the piece that is in the museum, one found years later by Bob James.
“I think that’s what my favorite part in putting it together is — you think you know everything about an object and then you start researching it for an exhibit and there are new connections to be made,” Bradley said.
Gibbins said what makes the Pratt museum different from other museums is that “the museum is about the community.” Part natural history museum, part history museum and part art museum, its collection allows curators to pull objects from one set of donations — Winter Carnival artifacts, for example — with another part, the women who wore one of those artifacts.
“I just love the different ways that each piece expresses community and then you juxtapose these things against each other, and it’s fascinating,” Gibbins said.
“Familiar Faces” pulls together all those threads: portraits, people, history, community and story. Something as simple as a Bible and a mother’s photo has a deeper meaning. Sam Pratt carried those objects during his military service and, after the trauma of World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, found his way to Alaska in 1934 during the Great Depression.
“It’s interesting to think about how that moment and that piece is tied to perhaps the inspiration for him to move and settle and enjoy this way of life,” Gibbins said.
In a more modern exploration between object and image, the exhibit includes Melissa Shaginoff’s Melissa Shaginoff’s “Kaggkaggos ts’en zuul (Swan Wing Bone / Drinking Tube),” a portrait of her youngest sister that includes a swan wing bone necklace with a beaded syringe and an insulin vial. Shaginoff notes that Ahtna young women were given such necklaces at the time of their first menstruation.
Of her work, she writes: “At puberty I was diagnosed with type-one diabetes, and autoimmune disease that like colonization attacks the body with reasons unknown and foreign. In place of a puberty necklace I was given a syringe and insulin bottles, tools of a colonized environment. But I see my experience as a story of decolonization.”
“You juxtapose a backstory like that,” Gibbins said of the Pratt photo and Bible, “against the Melissa Shaginoff portrait which is an entirely different perspective on life and this place.”
One thing Gibbins said that’s fun about the exhibit is listening to visitors to the exhibit and how people talk about the portraits.
“To hear visitors come in and have conservations about these things is a spark — so exciting,” she said.
To continue that spark, as the severity of the pandemic lessens, the museum hopes to hold interactive events in the spring to continue those conversations. One idea is to invite people to contribute photos from their own collection and tell their stories.
In the context of the pandemic, Gibbins said, “It’s a wonderful time to reflect on community and what it looks like and how it reflects across time, and to ponder how wonderful it is.”
That might be the best story of all.
“When we’ve been going through this pandemic that has driven us into isolation, it’s really a time to be reminded that nonetheless we have a strong community,” Gibbins said. “… That community can be here to heal.”
The Pratt Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.