4 Powerful Photography Exhibitions Will Debut at the National Portrait Gallery This Year

From photographs of remarkable Black women to an exploration of the definition of “kinship,” these new exhibits explore the breadth of the modern American experience.

4 Powerful Photography Exhibitions Will Debut at the National Portrait Gallery This Year

This photograph of actress Cicely Louise Tyson will be featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s “I Dream a World” exhibit.

Photo by Brian Lanker/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

The saying goes that good things come in threes, but four good things are coming to Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery this year. Over the course of the summer and fall, the museum will show four new exhibits that examine what it means to be an American today.

Opening July 8, I Dream a World: Selections from Brian Lanker’s Portraits of Remarkable Black Women will showcase a selection of portraits of contemporary Black American women who’ve shaped the country with their work in the arts, literature, activism, and politics. Next up, One Life: Maya Lin takes a biographical look at the award-winning Asian American architect behind D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (September 30–April 16, 2023). Kinship, which features more than 40 works by eight U.S. photographers, explores the interpersonal relationships that bind us (October 28–January 27, 2024). And slated to debut November 10 is Portrait of a Nation: 2022 Honorees, which pays respect to seven notable Americans who have made a significant impact on the country in the past year.

Together, the four exhibits create a poignant representation of the ever-evolving, modern American identity and the commonalities that unite us—a powerful balm in today’s divisive times. Because the gallery is a Smithsonian institution, admission is free and tickets are not required.

I Dream a World may look familiar to those who know the work of late Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Brian Lanker; his 1989 book of the same name serves as the basis of the exhibit, with the likenesses of 25 extraordinary Black women. Although Lanker passed away in 2011, the iconic photographs have been in his family’s possession since then and were first displayed at the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka, Kansas, in 2020. In the first installation (July 8, 2022–January 29, 2023) at the National Portrait Gallery, photographs of women like Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Rosa Parks will be on display while in the second (February 10–September 10, 2023), visitors may recognize familiar faces like Oprah Winfrey and Odetta, “the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“This exhibition is important because, through compelling portraits, it invites us to consider the achievements of inspiring Black women who overcame tremendous challenges to succeed in fields as diverse as literature, law, music, sports, and politics,” said Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs, in an email.

Featuring eight photographers from around the world, "Kinship" will explore the nature of all types of relationships.

Featuring eight photographers from around the world, “Kinship” will explore the nature of all types of relationships.

Photo by by Jess T. Dugan/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

The next to make its big entrance will be the latest chapter in the National Portrait Gallery’s One Life series, which involves the museum dedicating a full gallery to the life of one significant American. This time, the special exhibition will focus on the heralded architect, environmentalist, and sculptor Maya Lin, who is perhaps best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The exhibit uses photographs, sketchbook drawings, architectural models, sculptures, and personal items that guide viewers through the four decades Lin has produced work. Lin is passionate about the environment, and part of her What Is Missing? project, which addresses the global biodiversity crisis, will also be on display. One Life: Maya Lin will be the first time the series has honored an Asian American since it began in 2006. The exhibition opens September 30.

Kinship features the work of international contemporary photographers Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ruth Leonela Buentello, Jess T. Dugan, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jessica Todd Harper, Thomas Holton, Sedrick Huckaby, and Anna Tsouhlarakis, who were all tasked with exploring the nature of love and relationships of all kinds. Some themes that the installation will touch on include childhood and adulthood, gender roles, the geographic and regional diversity of the country, and life and death. Kinship is the latest exhibition of the Gallery’s Portraiture Now series, which showcases the work of the most renowned and innovative photojournalists of the 21st century. Visitors can catch the exhibit beginning October 28.

Last but not least is Portrait of a Nation: 2022 Honorees, which is scheduled to run starting November 10 for nearly a year. The gallery’s Portrait of a Nation series commemorates seven Americans who had a huge impact in their respective field within the year, and have subsequently become a part of the country’s zeitgeist. Honorees this year include director Ava DuVernay, for her work in television and film; Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the U.S. President who guided the nation through the COVID crisis; and Serena Williams and Venus Williams, tennis stars whose lives were explored in the Oscar-winning film King Richard.

If you have the time, the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibitions are also worth a look. Consider checking out Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue, which examines the infamous scandal through the use of portraits and imagery, or Powerful Partnerships: Civil War–Era Couples, which focuses on five history-making lovebirds who shaped the course of the nation’s history during one of its most vulnerable moments. For information on what else is currently available, visit the Gallery’s website.

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Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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