A Human Touch: Ann Hamilton’s Portraits at UT Austin

Ann Hamilton: Adam and Cora, 2017, photograph on enamel, from ONEEVERYONE. Courtesy Landmarks, University of Texas at Austin.



Ann Hamilton’s latest work, ONEEVERYONE, a series of sixty-five photographic portraits on porcelain-enamel panels, did not begin with a sketch or even an idea. It began with a vote. Citizens of Travis County, Texas, approved a ballot proposition to raise their property taxes, providing thirty-five million dollars a year for a visionary cause: community healthcare. “My inspiration,” Hamilton said in a recent public discussion in Austin, Texas, “was a gesture by the city, a huge public initiative passed in 2012 to create Dell Medical School.”

Built at the University of Texas at Austin, it’s the first new medical school at a major research institution in almost fifty years. The stated mission is to make Austin a “city of wellness.” The goal includes providing compassionate healthcare for the underserved population on the city’s East Side, with its concentration of Hispanic and African-American residents. “I liked the public health and social work context,” Hamilton said.

Andrée Bober, founding director of the Landmarks public art program at UT, commissioned Hamilton to create works to adorn three new buildings for teaching and out-patient care. “Andrée trusted me when I proposed a process rather than a thing,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t know what form the work would take in the beginning.”

Indeed, the photographic panels are a departure from the large-scale, multimedia extravaganzas for which Hamilton (b. 1956) is known. The MacArthur Fellow and National Medal of the Arts recipient has devised sensational, immersive experiences in ephemeral environments like her 2012 project the event of a thread staged in the four-story-high Drill Hall of New York’s Park Avenue Armory. In that participatory work, the public jumped on swings attached to the ceiling, linked by ropes to large fabric sails. Their swinging caused the white sheets to billow above them, while people read poetry aloud and a cage of pigeons cooed.

Text and textile are common threads throughout Hamilton’s work. She incorporated both in the initial installation of ONEEVERYONE‘s fourteen slightly-larger-than-life-size panels, unveiled on January 27, 2017, in the university’s Health Learning Building. The text component consists of a free newspaper with essays by a diverse group of writers like Laurel Braitman, writer-in-residence at the Stanford University School of Medicine, UT anthropology professor Kathleen Stewart, and Art in America contributing editor Nancy Princenthal.

Hamilton photographed more than five hundred people of all ages and ethnicities behind a semi-opaque shower-curtain-like scrim. The subjects could not see through the fabric, so Hamilton instructed them how to pose. The novel aspect of the method is that, in the resulting photographs, only the parts of a subject’s body that were in contact with the material are in focus. The individuals seem to be receding and advancing, concealed and revealed at the same time.

The method was perfect for Hamilton’s aim: to represent human contact, giving concrete form to the role of physical touch in medical treatment. “The work makes visible the nature of that exchange. It’s a visual statement of the medical school’s goal to humanize patients,” Hamilton said. Humanity and fraternity, she believes, will transform a hospital into a place of hospitality.

Clay Johnston, dean of the medical school, agreed, speaking at a press preview, he explained that Hamilton’s “work represents the spirit of the school, the value of creativity and art.” Bober, the public art director, praised the democratic theme of “human connectivity and how we relate to each other and care for each other.”

Over the course of 3 week-long residencies, Hamilton shot 21,000 photos at 12 different locations in the area, like a retirement community, children’s hospital, and health clinic for low-income patients. The panorama of portraits from all social classes mirrors the local population. They “encompass the full arc of human existence,” Bober said, representing “the individual and the commonalities of people.”

As part of the project’s community outreach mission, ten thousand copies of a nine-hundred-page book with portraits of all the participants are being freely distributed. A website also offers public access to the portraits.

The ambitious project recalls earlier photographers who have worked in social portraiture. The German August Sander’s series People of the Twentieth Century, first exhibited in 1927, contains beautifully lighted and composed portraits of German citizens, incisive character studies representing all occupations and social classes. Its scope was encyclopedic, almost a pictorial anthropology. The sociological photographer Lewis Hine attempted a similar survey of industrial workers in the US in the early twentieth-century. More recently, Robert Frank’s diaristic The Americans captured the soul of mid-twentieth-century America, while artists like Catherine Opie and Nan Goldin specialize in documenting contemporary subcultures.

Hamilton’s humanistic sensibility is evident in her determination to make each portrait, as she said, “beautiful and dignified.” Without prettifying her subjects, she shows respect for their individuality and belief in their universality. As she wrote in an email explaining the series title, the portraits show “the one in the many.”

One can see Hamilton’s foggy portraits as a throwback to soft-focus Pictorialist photography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the portraits-especially those of children, like one angelic toddler with a white hospital bracelet and finger monitor-look like tender pastels.

The recurrence of hands as a focal point unites the diverse works in the series. “So much of what happens in these pictures for me is gesture,” Hamilton said. A child in a red sweater holds a stuffed giraffe in his hands. An elderly man’s hands appear bruised with broken blood vessels. A doctor’s body vanishes into the ether except for his hand touching the stethoscope around his neck. “The less that’s there,” Hamilton said, “the more is there.” The cloudy atmosphere draws the eye to complete the picture more as a participant than an observer.

Fifty-one additional panels (both full-length and smaller portraits) are on view at the university art gallery until February 24. They will also be installed in public areas when two additional medical school buildings are completed.

Studies have documented a link between art on hospital walls and patient wellbeing. Images of natural landscapes-in blue and green hues-have the most calming effect. Other physiological effects of art include reduced reaction to stress, higher pain threshold, less anxiety, and positive outcomes like shorter hospital stays. Whether Hamilton’s portraits will have these benefits is still unknown. What is clear in the misty, ethereal images is that, in an age of high-tech medicine, they foreground the healing human touch.