Exercise: Portraits without people

Brief

Produce two sets of portraits without people. If you can, use some of your own family members for the first set of images. If that’s not feasible, use members of another family you know well (e.g. neighbours) – or some close friends. Your second set of images should explore a group of people that you know less well – work colleagues, for example.

If you can’t get hold of two different groups of people for this exercise, don’t worry – simply do the best you can. For example, you could do a set of images reflecting your subjects’ personal and family characteristics and a set reflecting their more ‘public’ side – their job, hobbies, etc.

For your first set of images (the group that you know best), shoot the Weingarten or the Leibovitz way.

For the second set, talk to the people you’ve chosen about what’s important to them. How do you see them? How do they see themselves? What can you use to represent them? Think about the best technique to use. You can use the Weingarten or Leibovitz technique or another one altogether but make some notes explaining your decision.

Place the images in your learning log or blog along with a short account of your experience. Is it possible to produce a meaningful portrait of someone without actually including the subject?

Response

I have had to interpret the brief slightly loosely; as I am childless (and live far away from my parents and siblings) and unemployed I have neither a family nor colleagues to bring into this exercise! I have therefore taken the variant suggested in the brief of depicting the same people in terms of their public persona and their private persona. I have chosen my wife Ann and my best friend Mike.

1. Public persona

I have used something like the Weingarten style for these two images. As an aside, I find Weingarten’s style to be absolutely hideous – but that’s not going to stop me trying it out for an exercise ;-)

Ann-public
Ann – public
Ann’s public persona is, in shorthand, ‘high-flying businesswoman‘. She’s a CEO, she travels a lot, and she’s a bit of a power-dresser… hence the skyscraper backdrop, the high speed trains, the communication devices and the multitude of high-heeled shoes.

Mike-public
Mike – public
Mike’s public persona could be summarised as ‘sociable mountain biking enthusiast‘. The montage is dominated by cycling imagery as he’s a professional mountain bike guide / instructor, and I’ve added in a few other references: he’s a keen Facebook user but also highly sociable in real life (hence the pint glass), and he runs a B&B (hence the fry-up).

2. Private persona

I decided on different styles for these two, as explained below.

Ann-private
Ann – private
Here I chose a still life approach, collecting a few objects that typify her interests and priorities in life. A dog lover (we have two); a keen gardener; likes spending weekends walking around the county; loves spending holidays at our apartment in Nice; is interested in history and currently spending a lot of spare time researching her family tree. The blue background is significant – she loves the summer and lives for sunny days with clear blue skies.

Mike-private
Mike – private
This was trickier to get a handle on, as my overriding sense of Mike’s ‘home’ persona is that he’s a real family man, devoted to his wife and kids – and I struggled with how to depict that in a Weingarten, Leibowitz or still life approach. In the end I realised that the best physical manifestation of Mike’s family priorities is the number of photos he takes of them. So this is a digital montage of images that he has taken of his family.

First of all, I must say that none of these are really in a style that I like working in (possible exception of the still life). My distaste for the form may be reflected in the quality of the outcomes.

The brief asks: “Is it possible to produce a meaningful portrait of someone without actually including the subject?”

My response: no, but neither is it really possible to produce a meaningful portrait of someone that does include them!

In a sense, each of these absented portraits is simply a visual version of a bullet point biography; a compilation of facts about a person, visually presented.

In one way therefore, this could actually give a more “meaningful” portrait than a traditional portrait of the subject. A regular portrait can capture facial expression, pose, environment, clothing, status and so on, but what indication could it give as to the subject’s personality, interests, priorities, motivations, principles, relationships, life…? Props might actually be able to communicate this better. A combination approach may work best?

I’ve mused on this subject before, but in short I find it difficult to agree with those who believe that photography has some magical ability to ‘capture’ a person’s character. A photograph can only capture one ‘version’ of someone at one moment in time, and it may be who they chose to show to the camera.

One aspect of doing the exercise this way (same people, two ‘versions’) reminded me of the explanation of the two ingredients of identity covered in Kath Woodward’s Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2004):

  • Structure: external, social identity – confirms to socially understood roles
  • Agency: internal, personal identity – self-definition, control, individuality

The public persona set uses structural stereotypes more obviously than the private persona set; however, to some extent even the private set is housed within accepted social roles (‘dog person’, ‘homebody’, ‘family man’ etc) rather than really digging into what makes a person a unique, distinctive personality.

So that’s my long answer to the brief’s question. The short version is: neither a traditional portrait nor an absented portrait can really provide a “meaningful” depiction of a person; the former is usually more interesting to look at, the latter is harder to pull off.

The question of how one can overcome this inherent limitation of portraiture is one that I keep coming back to – I’m considering covering it as part of the critical review.

Sources

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University.

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