Reflection: thoughts on portraiture

The practical exercises in this section might take me slightly longer than usual, partly because of the reliance on other people (portrait sitters) and partly as I need to source some equipment and possibly studio space.

This is giving me time to do more research and reflection into the whole area of portraiture and compile some of my observations, findings, questions and concerns about the genre.

I’m currently toying with the idea of using portraiture as the basis for either my Assignment 5 (oral presentation) or Assignment 6 (critical review) so this post is in note form as I might come back to it later to flesh out some of these thoughts.

All thoughts noted here are subject to updating in the light of subsequent study!

Research

I started with reading and making notes on some key texts:

Clarke: The Photograph

  • “The portrait in photography is one of the most problematic areas of photographic practice. […] At virtually every level, and within every context the portrait photograph is fraught with ambiguity.” (Clarke 1997: 101)
  • “In what sense can a literal image express the inner world and being of the individual before the camera?” (ibid: 101)
    • It can’t – not in my view… those who claim there is some kind of ‘magic’ by which a photograph can capture a person’s character are deluded in my opinion – I will come back to this
  • “The portrait photograph is, then, the site of a complex series of interactions – aesthetic, cultural, ideological, sociological, and psychological” (ibid: 102)
  • Painted portraiture is more constructed, deliberate, thoughtful – a composite statement of status and significance (ibid: 103)
    • To what extent did/does portrait photography try to emulate this? Can it? Should it?
    • Painting used props as signifiers – some photographers did same (e.g. Steichen) (ibid: 103)
  • JM Cameron is highlighted for early use of different portrait styles to reflect character e.g. men = strong, direct, facing viewer; women = passive, beautiful, gazed-upon, not facing camera (ibid: 105)
  • “Typologies of significance – interacting sets of social and cultural codes.” (ibid: 111)
    • Semiotics!
    • Sander took social codes as primary driver, not concerned with individual characters (ibid: 112)
  • “Perhaps we are entitled to ask at what point an image may be called a portrait?” (ibid: 114)
    • This is a point I’ve been looking at recently on my Documentary course: I maintain that Sander’s work wasn’t portraiture but typology
    • Does a portrait have to tell the viewer something about the individual? Does it need to be something ‘significant’ (as subjective as that is…)?
  • “Much twentieth-century portraiture has questioned the very terms by which an individual can be ‘known’ or ‘expressed’ in terms of a photographic image.” (ibid: 115)
    • Clarke uses Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe as examples: despite his vast work on one subject, did he really ‘capture’ her character?
    • Back to the same point as from p101 above
    • Clarke discusses photographers who have used photography to interrogate concepts of identity rather than try to ‘prove’ that the photograph can capture it (Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Avedon, Sherman)

Bate: Photography

  • “If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity” (Bate 2009: 67)
    • I like ‘a shorthand description of a person’ as a definition of portrait
    • It helps to differentiate between ‘photo of a person’ and ‘portrait’
  • “It is perhaps the peculiar combination of social and personal features involved in portraits that lends them their social fascination to questions of identity” (ibid: 71)
  • Four elements of a portrait: face, pose, clothing, location (ibid: 73)
    • all may be coded (semiotics) – conscious and subconscious pointers to character, status, significance
  • Categories of subject: familiar, unfamiliar, known (ibid: 80)
    • I’m looking at these from a viewer engagement point of view – I’m not interested in whether the photographer knew the subject, simply whether the viewer does
    • Familiar (family, friends, acquaintances): small audience but for these viewers the images will have particular significance and meaning – they will have an opinion on whether the image has ‘captured the character’ of the sitter
    • Unfamiliar (strangers): the most common subject matter for portraits, from the viewer viewpoint. The viewer cannot have an opinion on whether the image ‘captures the character’ of the sitter, so what is happening? it it simply projection? (I will come back to this)
    • Known (celebrities): the pleasure of recognition and repetition – a viewer has a preconceived idea of the subject and the image will either reinforce or subvert that idea
  • “The work by photographers who are conscious of representing the unrepresented in new ways, which do correlate to their actual identities in some way, is of much value – and this is often where innovations in portraiture are achieved, precisely because they interrupt the comfortable economy of the same.” (ibid: 81)
    • This is the Unfamiliar above, and this area fascinates me hugely (see thoughts below)
  • “[t]he meanings of the image are always corrupted by these process of spectatorship, such that the viewer invests their meaning based on their relation with the signifying elements of the extant portrait” (ibid: 84)
    • So there are always three parties to a portrait: the photographer, the sitter and the viewer
    • Successful portraits leave mental room for the viewer to fill in some of the gaps?

Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

  • Most of Camera Lucida is about viewing (reading) photographs but he does discuss the experience of being a portrait subject:
  • “Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the  lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” (Barthes 2000: 13)
  • “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object. I then experience a micro-version of death” (ibid: 14)
    • So according to Barthes there are four variations of ‘who you are’ even before a viewer gets to make up their own fifth interpretation
    • The ability of a photograph to ‘capture a character’ is therefore highly questionable, if we (photographer, subject, viewer) can’t even agree on the character of the individual in question

Roswell Angier: Train Your Gaze

  • If Barthes chose to examine the portrait from the sitter’s and viewer’s points of view, Angier very much emphasises the interaction between the photographer and the subject
  • “A portrait, the result of a consensual process, depends upon the subject’s agreement to be photographed. It assumes a level of trust. The subject usually faces the camera, and the contract between subject and photographer hangs palpably in the air that separates them. It is across this agreed-upon distance that all sorts of power relationships and tensions between or among the people involved are negotiated. The picture itself records this exchange” (Angier 2007: 1)
    • I really liked this emphasis on the ‘contract’ between the parties
    • Angier goes on to say that a key ingredient in a successful portrait is “the presence of the photographer’s thoughtful regard.” (ibid: 1)
    • It’s a shame then that he dilutes this key observation by including in the book chapters on non-consensual, non-portrait practice such as voyeurism/surveillance, constructed tableaux and landscapes
  • An insightful Richard Avedon reference: “In an introductory comment to this work [In the American West] Avedon said that he thought all portraits, and especially his own, were ‘opinions’. The photographer’s eye here does not seek merely to represent. It looks to persuade.” (ibid: 5)

Thoughts

To summarise some of my reflections on this reading:

  • A portrait cannot depict the inner identity/character/personality of an individual
    • Identity is multiple, mutable and subjective (relative/circumstantial), so there is no ‘right answer’ anyway
    • e.g. a loving husband could simultaneously be an overprotective father and a ruthless businessman; a supportive friend could simultaneously be a competitive sister and rebellious daughter…
    • Which of these did the photographer see? which will the wife/child/colleague or the friend/sister/mother see after the event?
    • So it can capture one ‘version’ of the sitter, as presented by the sitter and chosen by the photographer
  • Between the photographer and the sitter, signifiers such as facial expression, pose, clothing (and other props) and location can be constructed to present the desired ‘character’ qualities
    • This can be intentional or subconscious
  • The photographer is in a position of significant power and can ‘editorialise’ the subject – deliberately or unwittingly
  • The reading of a portrait depends significantly on whether the viewer knows the subject or not:
    • For familiar subjects the viewer can form a valid opinion on whether the portrait has captured not just their likeness (minimum expectation for an indexical medium) but their character – but it will be from their inherently subjective point of view
    • For known (famous) subjects the viewer is comparing the image to their existing (limited) knowledge of the subject
    • Unfamiliar is by far the most interesting area – what is it about a portrait of an unknown person than makes the viewer temporarily believe that they know something about that person?

That’s enough of a brain dump for now. I will return…

Sources

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Angier, R. (2007). Train Your Gaze. Lausanne: AVA.

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2 thoughts on “Reflection: thoughts on portraiture

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