Meet the Artist Using a 100-Year-Old Technique to Depict the Power of Women’s Hair

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Rachel Portesi’s preoccupation with hair is dense. The artist describes her own as “long, luxurious, beautiful hair. Every person who goes to cut my hair mentions it,” she says. “Someone even tried to buy it once in a Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Portesi is of Italian and Irish descent (she’s actually waiting on the results of an ancestry test when we speak), but identifies heavily with her Italian side. Her mother had very long hair too, and that’s where things get a bit raw. “She had basically abandoned me at age nine—I left her at age nine,” Portesi explains. “I didn’t see her again for a long time.” 

All that female hair evokes—a tense tangle of sexuality, gender, self-identity, ownership, repression, and conformation—is the focus of Portesi’s latest series, “Hair Portraits,” which is on exhibition at Vermont’s Brattleboro Museum & Art Center starting this weekend. In her images, which have an antique appearance as they are tintypes, the artist molds and sculpts her sitters’ hair, defying gravity and any notion of how hair ought to look. Portesi fashions it into fantastical creations, lacing in natural elements like crinkled leaves, twigs, and tropical fronds. The result is a collection of photographs which beguile with intimacy and the unexpected.

Imogen by Rachel Portesi, which features Rachel Racco wearing a nest like a crown. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Portesi

The series was born during a weeklong residency at the Vermont Studio Center, during which Portesi learned the craft of tintype photography—that blanket-over-the-photographer’s-head method of image making you might have seen in a Victorian-set film. To create the prints, a rectangular aluminum plate is treated with a liquid silver solution that reacts to the shadows and highlights of the image framed by the camera’s lens.

“I’ve been shooting instant photography since 1991,” says Portesi, “but the Polaroid film I shot with had been discontinued for many years. I was drawn to tintype photographs because—even though they take longer—they’re also instant.” In her first trials with tintypes, she opted to photograph her own hair because, as she says, “It felt like a safe place to photograph myself.” 

Portesi explains her residency coincided with an uneasy transition to empty nester status: “I was just coming out of a certain phase of motherhood and feeling weird and old and uncomfortable. I was trying to search for a different part of myself that I felt was lost.” In the little village of Saxtons River, Vermont, Portesi works from her home in a space above her garage formerly used by her artist husband. She describes it as “cluttered for a studio.” The walls are filled with vintage cameras and there are stacks of vinyl records. Using her own hair worked for a while, but her compositions soon got so elaborate that she could no longer play the simultaneous role of model and photographer.

A collection of vintage cameras inside the artist’s studio. “People just give me them,” she says.Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Portesi

Portesi began to invite fellow photographers and friends to have their hair twisted and braided in her works. One image, Imogen, has the model’s head encircled with flora like an aureole composed of twiggy branches, foliage, and wildflowers. Another, Flower Crown, features a pretty mohawk, with locks splayed around her as though she were lying flat. It recalls that record-breaking Instagram posted by Kendall Jenner, only upright and with daisies and lilies. If the eye deems these images antique at first glance, the wild woman hairdos and the bare breasts suggest otherwise.

Flower Crown features Isabel Rodriguez, a repeat muse of Portesi.Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Portesi

“Historically, women’s hair has been viewed as a symbol of sexuality and fertility. There seemed to be all sorts of limits placed on women’s hair,” Portesi says, citing the Orthodox Jewish custom of women wearing wigs after marriage. Further back, the Ancient Greeks had newly wedded women proffer their hair to the fertility gods. And in the Victorian era, girls were not allowed to wear their hair down past the age of 16 or so.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking about how the power and sexuality of a woman are tamped down to a certain extent,” says Portesi. “In some of my images, branches are really pulling the hair in crazy directions, which symbolizes the feeling of being pulled in a gazillion directions. Women are asked to be fit and sexy and kind and loving and a great mother—all of it.” The multitude of roles that women are expected to assume can distract them from their own desires and identity, an experience familiar to Portesi.

Daphne features a Medusa-like coiffeur of twisted hair and branches. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Portesi

“I chose a super-classical role as a mother and wife,” she says. “Literally, I was knitting shit for my kids, making bread and pasta from scratch, and sewing their clothes. I took it to a crazy level. For me, it felt like an impulse that was natural. But at the end, it left me feeling both really proud and excited by what I’ve done but also like, Well, what do I do now?”

Looking into the lens of her own camera allowed her to make a bit of sense of her own history. She tells me of her profound relationship with one of her models, Isabel Rodriguez, who posed for Flower Crown. Rodriguez was a photography student who started off assisting Portesi, but her confidence and the agency she exhibited proved inspirational to the artist. “I was photographing Isabel at age 20, and I was thinking about my mom, who had me at age 20. She was a young woman coming from a very abusive household. She was just ill-equipped to handle it. And then I was thinking about myself at 20, when I had also become pregnant but opted to terminate. While I was taking these photos, there was just a whole lot of hope and forgiveness,” she says. “I was understanding of womanhood and our lives and the different paths we all choose.” 

“Hair Portraits” is on exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center from October 24 to February 14, 2021. 

A triptych of Portesi's tintypes: May, Graft, and QueenPhoto: Couresty of Rachel PortesiA behind-the-scenes look at the artist's tintype photography technique. Video: Courtesy of Rachel Portesi
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