Imagining the Modern Self: Photographs from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection

Ahmanson Building, Level 2
September 29, 2012–January 21, 2013

Los Angeles–based collectors Audrey and Sydney Irmas, along with their daughter, Deborah—a filmmaker and photo historian—began acquiring photography in the mid-1970s, eventually specializing in self-portraiture. Their collection of nearly two hundred works by almost as many artists now spans the entire history of photography, from the first inventions of the 1850s to images by leading contemporary artists. The most significant compilation of its kind, the Irmas Collection embodies every important photographic innovation and movement.

We celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this extraordinary  gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with the current installation, which focuses on a highly productive period of camera experimentation that began in the 1920s and continued into the 1940s. The mirrored, shadowed, and multiplied image is at play in works by Berenice Abbott, Piet Zwart, and Peter Keetman. Masquerade, theatricality, and the absurd are are evident in the guise of T. Lux Feininger as Charlie Chaplin, Pierre Molinier as his female self, and the comically transformative pose of the surrealist Tato. The use of distortion or obfuscation of one’s physical appearance is another common approach, seen in Anton Stankowski’s spiraling façade and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “ant’s eye” view of his leg. Quite often, the self-portrait obscures as much as it elucidates. As the works on view illustrate, self-portraiture can be a means of hiding from view, even as it promises to reveal its subject. In the end, the act of making oneself a work of art is the ultimate experiment.

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Anton Stankowski, Simultaneous Enlargement, 1937, gelatin silver print, 11 x 7 3/ 8 in., AC1992.197.117, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, © Stankowski Foundation.