Shoot it and wear it: portrait photography in jewelry

Folly brooch/pendant, 1998, mixed-media image on polymer clay, 24k gold-plated copper, wax patina, mother-of-pearl, stainless steel (collection of Ron Porter and Joe Price)

Folly brooch/pendant by Diane Falkenhagen, 1998, mixed-media image on polymer clay, 24k gold-plated copper, wax patina, mother-of-pearl, stainless steel (collection of Ron Porter and Joe Price)

Almost as soon as photography was invented in the 1830s, jewelry makers began to incorporate it. It began with the impulse to wear a replica of someone, living or dead – a photo in a locket being the classic example.

Photography on the Internet has changed the game once again and this particular artistic merger is taking on new life. It’s so easy, for example, to pull the detail of a famous painting off a website, tweak it a little and incorporate it into a piece of jewelry.

Jewelry artists around the world are doing just that – and a lot more – with digital images. Others are shooting their own images and incorporating them into their jewelry.

Multiple Exposures: Jewelry and Photography, at the Museum of Arts and Design from May to September, explored various paths this experimentation has taken over the past 150 years or so. If you missed it, there’s always the book.

Curator Ursula Ilsa Neuman specializes in contemporary art jewelry but her initial inspiration for this exhibit was something old and very personal: jewelry inherited from her great-grandmother.

Multiple Exposures book cover

Click image to find catalog on Amazon.

“I brought them over from Germany – long, foldout medallion-type things from the late 1800s and one of them has eight little pictures in it,” Neuman says.

“I was aware of 19th-century photo jewelry and, since I’m very interested in contemporary art jewelry, I wanted to know more about it,” she says. “I wanted to investigate what was done in that field since then.”

The exhibition opens with a nod to the origins of this tradition: early 19th-century painted miniatures in a ring and a brooch. Both depict one eye painted on ivory in watercolor, in an oval setting encased in rock crystal.

One is a ring, mourning jewelry made in 1800 of black enamel, with a painted eye that floats eerily in a cloudy sky.

The other (pictured blow) is a brooch made 45 years later. At first glance, you’d swear both were contemporary.

Brooch with eye miniature, c. 1845, of watercolor on ivory, gold, pearls, rock crystal (collection of Cathy Gordon)

Brooch with eye miniature, c. 1845, of watercolor on ivory, gold, pearls, rock crystal (collection of Cathy Gordon)

Hindsight pin, 1997 by Kiff Slemmons of found photographs, silver, clock hand, mica (collection of Helen Kornblum)

Hindsight pin, 1997, by Kiff Slemmons of found photographs, silver, clock hand, mica (collection of Helen Kornblum)

Earliest photo-jewelry in the exhibit is from the 1840s, soon after photography was invented. The advent of photography had a huge impact, if only because nearly anyone could now have a portrait taken. “For the first time, people could realistically be represented,” Neuman says, “and also the middle class could present itself as itself.”

Several contemporary pieces in the show harken back to those early painted eyes. Kiff Slemmons clipped eyes from old tin-type photos, mounting them in an old clock hand so they appear to peer out from goggles on the silver frame of a face.

Suska Mackert began in 2005 to make brooches from eyes (clipped from newspapers) that appear to float above circular steel bands.

Brooches by Suska Mackert Augen since 2005, of newspaper images, cardboard, steel (collection of artist and others)

Brooches by Suska Mackert Augen since 2005, of newspaper images, cardboard, steel (collection of artist and others)

Painted portraiture was the only option before that and it was the domain of the aristocracy and uber-wealthy. When photography came along, the middle classes were on the rise. To have one’s portrait taken by a photographer became a status symbol – and an increasingly affordable one.

Having a photograph stashed away in a secret place, like a pendant around your neck, was a means of keeping a loved one close at hand, even after death. “The pieces I have, and those 19th-century pieces in the show, are totems of affection, of memory, of love and of loss,” Neuman says.

Ashley Gilreath makes direct reference to that tradition in “I Am Who They Were,” a necklace that turns the wearer into a wall of family photos.

"I Am Who They Were" neckpiece, 2011, of  decal photographs, sterling silver, bronze, optical glass (collection of the artist)

“I Am Who They Were” neckpiece, 2011, of decal photographs, sterling silver, bronze, optical glass (collection of the artist)

Along with some photo-jewelry from the turn-of-the-century, there is a fascinating collection of “trench jewelry” made during both world wars. Jewelry from the trenches was made mainly from hammered aluminum with transparent plastic casings over tiny photos – sometimes of loved ones, sometimes of the soldier, often blatantly sentimental with heart-shaped settings.

Trench Art Bracelet, c. 1942, of gelatin silver print, aluminum, transparent plastic (Giorgio Vigna Trench Art Collection, Milan)

Trench Art Bracelet, c. 1942, of gelatin silver print, aluminum, transparent plastic (Giorgio Vigna Trench Art Collection, Milan)

One eye-catching piece is a “vinaigrette” made in 1855, once used to hold smelling salts for reviving fainting women – a popular accoutrement in those days. This one took the form of an anchor, with an old ambrotype photograph set in sterling silver and glass.

Anchor-shaped vinaigrette pendant, c. 1855, of ambrotype, sterling silver setting, glass (collection of Daile Kaplan)

Anchor-shaped vinaigrette pendant, c. 1855, of ambrotype, sterling silver setting, glass (collection of Daile Kaplan)

About a quarter of the display is devoted to older work, setting the context for the main theme: contemporary art jewelry. You’ll find plenty of modern spins on the photo locket. I remarked to Neuman that most of the work on display seems to involve the human form in some way: humans wearing humans.

“Humans wearing humans, yes,” Neuman said. “And humans wearing what might have been anonymous photographs culled from the Internet, making them very intimate and personal again – through wearing them and through the art jewelers using them.”

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