BMAC presents online artist talk by Rachel Portesi

Saxtons River—based photographer’s work explores power of women’s hair

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) presents an online talk by photographer Rachel Portesi, via Zoom and Facebook Live, on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m.

The talk is presented in connection with the exhibit “Rachel Portesi: Hair Portraits,” a series of tintype photographs on view at BMAC through Feb. 14, 2021.

A link to attend the talk will be available at

Curated by BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams, the exhibit “reflects on the fact that since the beginning of human history, hair has held symbolic, cultural, and emotional significance,” a news release for the talk explains. “Although meanings and rites vary from culture to culture, most relate to key life events.”

“Hair's inextricable link to identity is rooted in the fact that it is one of the only aspects of an individual's appearance over which they can have near-full control. It can be dyed, cut, braided, worn in the form of a wig or extensions, concealed, shaved off, or styled endlessly.

“In the context of 'Hair Portraits,' this notion of control takes on an exaggerated visual form, in that models' hair is literally pinned to a wall for an effect that often appears, in the tintypes' final state, to defy physics.”

BMAC will present two other events related to the exhibit.

On Thursday, Jan. 14, at 7 p.m., Helen Sheumaker, an associate teaching professor at Miami University and the author of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, will present “Linking Us Fondly: Hairwork in 19th Century America.”

And on Thursday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m., Portesi will present an online tintype photography demonstration from her Saxtons River photography studio.

Each tintype photograph in “Hair Portraits” is the culmination of hours Portesi spends making a collaborative “hair sculpture” with a model who stands against a wall.

The subject's hair is fastened to the wall with pushpins, intricately intertwined with symbolic objects such as fresh flowers, twigs, large plant fronds, family heirlooms and mementos, and additional flora from Portesi's garden and a nearby flower farm.

Several of these “hair sculptures” also use ceiling-suspended fishing line for additional volume.

Many of the objects have historical connections to fertility and femininity, like Portesi's frequent incorporation of braids and in-bloom flowers. In other photographs, the integrated objects have personal resonance to the artist or the model.

In “Abuela,” for instance, a confidently posed, bare-breasted woman wears an antique lace bridal collar, the hair on her head geometrically hand-sewn by Portesi into the lace.

The lace collar belonged to Portesi's grandmother but was selected by the model for its tactile resemblance to her childhood memory of her grandmother's lace tablecloth.

The selection of photographs includes 17 tintype works depicting the hair of three models. The exhibition also features a film piece comprising “hair sculpture” process footage shot on a combination of three devices: a hand-crank 16mm film camera from 1948, a Super 8 film camera from 1978, and an iPhone 6 from 2014.

Portesi's representation of multiple ethnicities and sexual identities, while not deliberate - her model pool for the portraits in the exhibit was “three friends who were excited about the project” - speaks to hair-related identity as a universal construct, but one that is unique to the lived experiences of the individual.

“Hair Portraits” came about when Portesi was experiencing a complex form of grief as the result of an identity shift that occurred as her children grew older.

During a 2013 artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center, Portesi began researching grief as a concept and became engrossed by historical practices of mourning - specifically, how so many encompassed hair.

During her initial experimentation during the residency, Portesi set out to make self-portraits. The direction the process took turned out to make self-portraiture impossible, so she began to enlist other women with whom she had close relationships.

Portesi explains that her interactivity with each model during the process varies: Some prefer to check out and be on their phones while Portesi sculpts, while others are full creative collaborators. One of the models has hair that is similar to Portesi's, and the duo's process mirrors one of self-portraiture on the part of Portesi.

After the deliberate, hours-long “hair sculpture” process, the tintypes themselves are taken over a 26-second exposure.

“Because the exposure is long, and the chemistry of my homemade solvent is finicky, there is no certainty of the outcome,” said Portesi, who said her attraction to instant photography began when she started shooting on 1970s Polaroid Land Cameras in 1995.

“When my beloved Polaroid 667 black-and-white film was discontinued in 2008, I took up the archaic medium of tintype, which offered a similar appeal in its lack of control; each shot is one-and-done, a final product with imperfections and all,” she said. “There is nothing quite like the mystery and gradual satisfaction of the final image slowly emerging before your eyes. It feels like a magic trick.”

Portesi said she uses hair “to both honor and say goodbye to past parts of myself.”

She describes the images as addressing “fertility, sexuality, creativity, nurturement, and harmony and discord with nature.”

“Above all, these images - photographs of elaborate, pinned hair sculptures constructed in the studio with the input of their subjects - are a testament to change,” Portesi said. “In my case, that change is a record of metamorphosis from a past fractured self to an integrated, confident, self-actualized woman.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates