Robert Seydel’s A Short History of Portraiture (1994-97) is a collection of some 200 Polaroid transfer montages. Focused on the face as a figure of the double, Seydel’s imagery is idiosyncratic in the best sense of the word: his multi-layered portraits of real and fictional characters are not renderings of the canonical faces we might expect to see in the history of portraiture. Instead, the chosen subjects, when identifiable, are the muses and mentors of the artist-collector himself.
Present in at least one portrait is political and aesthetic philosopher Walter Benjamin, a paraphrasing of whose text, A Short History of Photography, forms the title of Seydel’s series. But, it is the figure of the collector found in Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” and who underlies the great unfinished and impossible catalogue of the City of Paris, The Arcades Project, that provides one of the keys to Seydel’s project. For the artist, images are taken as texts, and are overwritten into a history that is physical, political, as well as lyrical. Rendered at the intimate scale of the ubiquitous Polaroid cameras of the 1960s and 1970s, Seydel’s images are torn, montaged and transferred, turned, and further manipulated to create a palimpsest of meaning.
Robert Seydel (1960-2011) was an artist, curator, and professor of photography who taught at Hampshire College from 1999 to 2011. Prolific in his art making, at his untimely death he had completed more than 20 large series of works, the most famous of which is the posthumously published The Book of Ruth (Siglio Press, 2011).
Image caption: Robert Seydel, Walter Benjamin with an as yet unknown person, from the Typologies Group series in ‘A Short History of Portraiture,’ photomontage