Rachel Portesi: Hair Portraits

October 24, 2020 - February 14, 2021

Take a virtual tour of the exhibit

Since the beginning of human history, hair has held cultural and symbolic meaning. It is a marker of ethnicity, social class, identity, gender, sexuality, age, sickness, and health. Women’s hair especially is woven into mythology, religion, politics, culture, and art.

Rachel Portesi makes hair portraits utilizing the early photographic method of tintype. She works collaboratively with her models to create intricate—one might say baroque—hair styles. Pinned to walls or other scaffolding, the extravagant hair designs are often embellished with flowers, becoming living sculptures rooted in the human body. Hair is often referred to as a woman’s “crowning glory.” Portesi’s “crowns” befit Ceres/Demeter, goddess of growing plants and motherly relationships; and Diana/Artemis, goddess of the hunt, wild animals, and the moon.

Creating a tintype requires the subject, or model, to remain absolutely still for thirty seconds after the lens cap is removed and light floods onto the prepared wet plate. This wet process results in inconsistencies, with the deeply toned surface of each image retaining the traces of its distinctive making. Unlike digital photography, tintypes are singular objects, each print as unique as the portrait sitter.

— Mara Williams, Chief Curator

I reached a point in my life when all of the things I knew to be true—the entire structure, the scaffolding of my life—seemed to suddenly disappear. I was no longer the same person I was when I entered motherhood. With children who were growing up and needing less, the person I was before no longer seemed relevant. It was time to take a close look at myself from another perspective.

I began to look at the ways that loss, in many forms, is recognized. In Victorian culture, mourning became a craze. Mementos were often made using tresses of hair. Early photography played an important role through commemorative portraits to honor the dead. The custom of keeping a lock of a child’s hair, or saving our own shorn locks as a memento of our own past, is a remnant from the Victorian period.

I use hair both to honor and to say goodbye to past parts of myself. These images address fertility, sexuality, creativity, nurturing, harmony, and discord with nature. Above all, these images are a record of metamorphosis from a past fractured self to an integrated, self-confident woman.

— Rachel Portesi


November 18, Wednesday, 7 p.m. – Artist Talk: Rachel Portesi
January 14, Thursday, 7 p.m. – Linking Us Fondly: Hairwork in 19th Century America
January 21, Thursday, 7 p.m. – 
Tintype Photography Demonstration with Rachel Portesi


Take a virtual tour of the exhibit
Photo Gallery
Video – Artist Talk: Rachel Portesi