Framing Portrait Photography by Nan Phelps

Tomorrow night I’ll be giving a small, informal talk at the studio of Nan Phelps, an exceptional portrait photographer I’ve known and admired for decades. The subject of the talk will be the value and method of framing photographs, and the practice of frame-making as a living art form.

Nan Phelps (portrait of child), 6″ x 6″, silver gelatin print

I’ll be focusing on this lovely set of 6″ x 6″ portraits by Nan, which we just framed for her. This set is a great example of one of Nan’s specialties, which is silver gelatin prints she develops herself in the dark room. Looking at these pictures, one can’t help but be struck by the masterful and sensitive use of value (the spectrum of light and dark), which is the soul of black and white photography’s uniquely effective powers to capture light and form. Another outstanding aspect of her work plainly evident in these examples is her ability to catch and convey each subject’s personality and character.

It was a delight to frame this set of photos for all these reasons, plus one more: they are of Nan’s own children and step-children. That is to say, they had very special personal significance to the customer. The importance of that from a framing point of view is that, while we live in an age when photographs are ubiquitous and proliferating at an incomprehensible clip, framing matters even more. Because it’s having a photo printed and framed—given more or less permanent place—that signals, conveys and even imparts significance on some photos over and above the oceans of photographic images that are out there. These won’t reside merely in the virtual and ephemeral world of our phones and screens. Nor will they be hung as mere curiosities, or for purely decorative purpose, or any of the myriad reasons we attach to our walls the myriad of photos available to us—often times with only fleeting thought, the method of display (tacks or tape) reflective of their impermanent place in our hearts. To the contrary, they’ll be given as permanent, firm and clear emphasis on the wall as photos can have, in frames designed to sustain and amplify their unique qualities and spirit, as well as reflect the fixed and appreciative place they hold in Nan and her family’s hearts. (Continued below…)

Frames always say, “This matters.” But when they are on photographs, a medium in such quantity that we tend to become indifferent to it, that message is all the more important.

The photos in this set are framed “close” —i.e., with no visible mat (a hidden, or “gasket” mat, separates the picture from the glass)— in 2-1/4″ walnut frames stained black. When I get the chance to frame sets of companion pictures, no matter what medium, I usually prefer the frames also to be similar but different—usually in the same wood and, if they’re the same size, same profile width. (Another good example of that is the Barbara Tapp show we had at the Gallery earlier this year, in which all the frames were in clear walnut and 2″ wide.) That’s what we did here, with all the frames the same width and wood and finish, and in a consistent genre, but keying the shape of the frame to the particular characteristics of each photo, and each photo reflecting in turn the individuality of each subject. The frames, like the subjects, are members of one family, but each unique.

The event is tomorrow, Thursday, October 11 from 7:00 to 8:30. Nan Phelps Photography is at 398 Colusa Avenue in Kensington (510/528-8845). The event will be open to all, but seating is limited to about 25.


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One thought on “Framing Portrait Photography by Nan Phelps

  1. A lovely suite of frames, Tim. Walnut is such a beautiful wood it rarely needs fanciful work (though, that looks great in Walnut). It is one of those woods with interesting grain and texture that speaks for itself.

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