Exhibit Review: 'American Portraits'


By Tanya Silverman

Twin Sisters in Aviator Hats, Oakland, California, 1988. By Leon Borensztein.

Sometimes a picture portrays a person’s dream. Sometimes a portrait of a person touches on the background of the dream.

Polish-born photographer Leon Borensztein encountered the realities of the “American Dream” when he began working as a traveling portrait photographer during the late ‘70s. When he observed American households during his shifts–first around California and then in other states–Borensztein began noticing the tiring strife that bore to achieve the dream.

Girl Scout with Flag, Maui, Hawaii, 1985. By Leon Borensztein.

As Borensztein continued to capture color portraits for work, he decided to start a side project of taking black-and-white photographs of the American working class and their families. He told his subjects–from sisters in aviator hats in California to brothers with painted jackets in Minnesota–not to force smiles.

Prints from Borensztein’s completed series, American Portraits 1979-1989, are currently displayed at NYC’s Foley Gallery. One print, Parents with Five Children, Bakersfield, California, 1983, shows an awkwardly wholesome family posing stiffly, while Man with Afro, San Francisco, California, 1984 portrays a cooler, more confident subject sitting solo.

All of those who posed in the series were positioned in front of the same backdrop. None of the subjects from the different photographs knew one another; none of them are named in the series.

Father with Son, Bakersfield, California, 1983. By Leon Borensztein.

As an American born in the mid ‘80s, observing portraits that were captured around the time of my birth triggers a vague nostalgia. The aesthetic touches on bygone American styles, with individuals adorned with tacky glasses or honky pumps I might dig up from the catacombs of second-hand shops or grandparents’ attics. My reaction is possibly a superficial sense of my country’s cultural history I never really knew beyond its material remnants–but I still feel like the facial expressions are ones I witness in everyday life.

Borensztein executed American Portraits after he emigrated from Israel. He tells me how he recalls seeing “the same bible on the coffee table or the same Britannica covered with thick dust” in American households, evidence of a door-to-door salesman’s steps. He also remembers meeting families where all members were watching different television shows in separate rooms.

Borensztein says he wouldn’t want to take similar portraits of individuals who were aware of his intentions, knowing the image would be displayed in art books or on gallery walls. He’s presently “committed to photograph people with disabilities and similar social issues,” which is influenced by his daughter’s disability.

Couple with Baby, Reno, Nevada, 1981. By Leon Borensztein.

Regarding today’s reality of the American Dream, Borensztein feels it remains the same–only the disguise has changed. While the way we live now is “vastly different” from the way we lived 30 to 40 years ago, the way we want others to perceive us is not.

“We still dress up to look our best, don our finest jewelry, medals, or tattoos,” Borensztein says. “We try to hide our poverty, our vulnerabilities, but in good and sensitive hands the camera doesn’t lie.”

All photos courtesy of Foley Gallery.

‘American Portraits: 1979-1989’ will be on display at Foley Gallery in New York City until July 26.