Portraiture is one of the most prevalent forms of visual art, but also one of the most difficult to parse. Particularly in an age when the average photograph taken is most likely a selfie, it’s easy to forget how personal, dramatic and affecting a portrait can really be.
Jim McGuire, a local photographer with a near-50 year career of creating portraits, reminds us of the artistic value that can come from placing a subject in front of the camera and clicking the shutter-release button. In “The Nashville Portraits,” an exhibition of his work on view at Belmont University’s Leu Art Gallery through December 6, 2019, one can find intimate and touching studies of some iconic subjects.
“From a young age, McGuire was drawn to hillbilly music, to the sounds, the emotion, the honesty, and then of course to the people who made it,” according to a release from Belmont. “Discovering country music changed his life in ways he couldn’t have dreamed. Over the past thirty-five years, he has had the good fortune to have met, photographed and befriended many of his musical heroes.”
This reverence for and firsthand intimacy with his subjects is perhaps what elevates the 1974 print Dolly Parton beyond a mere photograph and into the more intentional realm of a “portrait.” Parton is presented in much of her well-known “girl next door” glory — with a gentle smile, crossed legs and cradling her guitar. But the monochromatic lighting is also dramatic, offering a glow that seems to emanate directly from Parton. The piece achieves perhaps the loftiest goal that a portrait can: creating an immortal image of its subject that subtly, but definitively, articulates their individuality.
McGuire has been making photographs in Nashville since the early ’70s, creating portraits of regional royalty like Waylon Jennings and Barbara Mandrell. But in addition to creating intimate portraits of country music legends, McGuire has created photographs of live concerts, of dramatically staged scenes and of seemingly candid moments. His work has been featured on hundreds of album covers and collected in a “Nashville Portraits” book.
“Most of us have a drawer full of snapshots that remind us of the good times,” McGuire has said of the collection. “These are some of mine.”
Belmont University’s Leu Art Gallery is located in the Lila D. Bunch Library, 1907 Belmont Boulevard.