Taken at face value

Kelly Coulson has always been interested in photography. She got her enthusiasm from her father at an early age, and she took pictures for the yearbook and newspaper in high school.

However, Coulson never considered photography to be a career option. Her first two years at USF were spent studying


public relations. Then – in what Coulson describes as a fateful afternoon – she walked into the Contemporary Art Museum and her career choice shifted. Coulson expected her mother to freak out. Instead, she was very supportive.

“My mom has one of those jobs where you wonder what you’re doing with your life,” Coulson said. “All she would want for her kids is to be happy.”

And so, Coulson followed her passion. Her latest work, An Exhibition of Portraits, is currently running at the Centre Gallery, located in the Marshall Center.

The portraits themselves merit some explanation. She describes them as “little embodiments of the tangible person.” There are roughly 20 of them – all simply and brightly lit – with the subject staring straight ahead with little or no expression on his or her face.

Taken from the chest up, the portraits give the illusion of nudity. Coulson wanted to strip away the trappings of adornment that one would normally expect with a portrait and study the shape of the subject’s shoulders, neck and face.

In an unadorned and austere fashion, the women were not supposed to wear makeup or jewelry, and their hair was to be pulled back.

Coulson confesses that one of the subjects broke the rules and wore a little bit of makeup, but she wants to leave it to the audience to figure out which one. The subject’s confidence and defiance is obvious in her expression, but one has to wonder if she was nervous about being photographed without makeup.

At first glance, the faces seem blank, but if one spends time observing the work, subtle expressions and personalities become apparent. Vulnerability, innocence or confidence shine through in the shape of the eyes or the slightest parting of the lips.

The pictures of the male subjects are on a separate wall and were taken against a different background, but Coulson said it’s not a statement on gender.

The male subjects’ faces are also blank, but their individual demeanors remain apparent, even more so than the women. One looks incredibly intense – another looks jocular and gentle.


Coulson says she’s interested physiognomy, the early 19th century pseudoscience founded on the belief that you could determine someone’s personality traits by studying the shape of his or her face and skull.

“I don’t believe in it,” she said. “I just think it’s a cool idea.”

Although she works entirely with film, Coulson said she’s not opposed to digital photography. She believes film offers her more hands-on control over the final product, however.

“Deep down, I think all artists are control freaks,” she said.

Coulson recently received her bachelor’s degree in photography and is taking some time to “let her head settle” before returning to school to work on her master’s degree.

An Exhibition of Portraits will be available for daily viewing through this Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.