In touch with photography’s Victorian roots, Rachel Portesi uses a very old-fashioned photo medium to examine an array of issues and ideas particularly pertinent to women and women artists both then and now. Her “Hair Portraits” are reminders of the historical role of coiffure as a social signifier communicating everything from age, income, religion, nationality, and marital status to deeply-personal messages about self-image, attitude toward authority, and, sometimes, appetite for adventure! These are adventurous artworks, the unpredictable nature of the wet plate collodion process, and the demands of the time and engineering required to execute Portesi’s portraits, make each image’s appearance in the fixer a surprise, a delight, or a disappointment, but Rachel relishes the challenge. Indeed, for her, a large part of the attraction of the tintype process is that, unlike contemporary digital photography, which allows hundreds of exposures per hour with the ready option of perfecting edits in Photoshop, tintype is one-and-done, the “magical” result is always unique and finished in the final rinse. Like the Victorians, who were famously students of Nature, Portesi integrates natural objects: flowers, leaves, twigs, and vines, in extraordinary, architected, distinctly feminine symbols of patience, wisdom, strength, and creativity.
My images are similar to journal entries. They’re feelings I am sorting out that don’t necessarily
make sense at the time. My first interpretations are not always accurate, because my thoughts
and feelings are subjective, like song lyrics, or a book. The meaning changes with time and
perspective. I have another, earlier body of work that I intended as a celebration of woman-
hood, only, months later, to realize I was dressing up fear and insecurity. Now, when I look at
those images, I can see the vulnerability in them, and the lies I was telling myself at the time.
The project actually enabled me to endure the difficulties until I felt strong enough to face them.