Photographic Masks from the Collection

By: Eric Parrish, Curatorial Research Assistant

indy Sherman 1994.4

In the spirit of Halloween, the Akron Art Museum offers its patrons a slideshow of photographic masks ranging from the literal to the abstract. You can also visit many of these works at www.AkronArtMuseum.org/collection.

Perhaps the most innocent mask-wearers in the collection are the three young children – depicted wearing paper cut-out masks and standing patiently on a door-step – in Helen Levitt’s New York (1939). In contrast, Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s 1960 photograph of a boy with a masked face and heavy, over-sized hands takes on an ambiguously melancholy air—a world-weariness we normally associate with adulthood. Edouard Boubat’s Fêtes des morts, Mexique 1980, which depicts the Day of the Dead celebrations on November 1, shows a masked boy placing a candle on a grave. Ken Heyman’s depiction of two young trick-or-treaters in Children in masks, Hotel Belvedere in background, NY provides an interesting counterpart to Levitt’s photograph from a quarter century earlier.

Of course, children aren’t the only ones in the collection wearing masks. Heyman’s Man with mask and black robe in [sic] Halloween, New York (1984) depicts a man dressed as what appears to be a sunglasses-wearing witch. Similarly, Leon Levinstein’s untitled and undated photograph depicts a pair of masked revelers in a delightfully seedy Times Square. In The Masquerader (1985), Penny Rakoff brilliantly uses color to create a mysterious dream-like atmosphere surrounding the masked woman of the title. The same year master-photographer Cindy Sherman created a photograph (Untitled) which somehow defies any attempt at adequate description; it must be seen.

Clarence John Laughlin’s evocatively-titled The Masks Grow to Us (1950) portrays a much more metaphorical kind of mask—one that hints at the complex relationship between masks and identity. Similarly, Amy Jenkins’s Untitled XLIII (43) (1994) is a surrealist tableau that includes a face embedded in the eye of another face. Lotte Jacobi’s beautifully ethereal Mask takes this motif fully into the realm of abstraction.

There are several other photographs in the collection that evoke Halloween. Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s 1966 photograph Untitled [Arched doorway with ghost] combines photographic techniques of erasure with an institutional setting to suggest a ghostly figure wandering through an abandoned hospital or penitentiary. Finally, Joan Liftin’s gorgeous color photograph “Psycho,” Kentucky (1984) juxtaposes the warmth and intimacy of a drive-in theatre at twilight with a single projected frame (“Bates Motel / Vacancy”) of Alfred Hitchcock’s black -and-white horror masterpiece.

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