Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting

Photograph of Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother” (c. 1926-42) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (photo © and by Carolina Miranda, used with permission)

Around 1911, mother and son Shushan and Vostanig Adoian visited a local photography studio in Van, a heavily Armenian city near the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. There, they sat for a portrait, one they might send to Setrag Adoian, her husband and his father, in the United States. The absence of that man from the portrait is palpable. It is but the first of many absences and disappearances to disturb a photograph that in time became a memorial object and then artistic source material. Indeed, the portrait seems almost haunted by its own disappearance, its fading as an autonomous object with its own particular orbit and history as it is overtaken by these other narratives. But could autonomy be regained, and a link to its own world reforged?

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