Following on from the last comment under Project 5, I have just finished a first read through of ‘Train Your Gaze’ by Roswell Angier.
A useful read that warrants further study, the book is subtitled ‘A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography’, which sums it up succinctly. It is not (and I never expected it to be) a manual on how to take portraits; and it is quite a wide-ranging, free-ranging book, which will require more careful reading and analysis in order to fully appreciate its messages. But it is certainly authoritative, contemporary (though wide-ranging enough to look across the scope of photographic history), provoking and challenging, with ‘assignments’ that, if one had the time and inclination, would definitely open up new possibilities. It also, to my mind, communicates at a ‘personal’, practical level, though willingly embracing more complex theoretical concepts. It irritated me from time to time – seemingly dismissive of Gregory Crewdson, for example, and elsewhere, putting a different (and potentially contradictory) interpretation on the detail of Jeff Wall’s ‘Mimic’ compared to Michael Fried and even the artist himself. But those are minor, irritating (to me, that is) details. I have already got plenty from the book and will get more with further attention.
The main reason for mentioning it here is to pick up on some early definitions or points made about the concept of ‘the gaze’ in a photographic context. The ‘characteristic’ that defines the presence of the photographer’s gaze is ‘... the felt activity of someone looking, the photographer in person, embedded in the photograph’ (page 1). And, a little later, when discussing Richard Avedon’s approach to making portrait images, Angier says:
‘The photographer’s eye here does not seek merely to represent. It looks to persuade.’ (Page 5)
It is the very clear statement of the proactive role of the photographer that I find interesting. Even this early in the course, photographing family and friends, I am conscious of the need to develop this ‘looking’ and to learn how to ‘embed’ it into my portrait images. I have spent twenty years in recruitment, and long since developed a technique of interviewing that, I think, successfully ‘persuaded’ my interviewees to demonstrate to me their capabilities and their shortcomings. I can see some parallels – though I don’t yet have the equivalent technique for portrait-making. Angier describes Avedon’s ‘rumoured’ approach, in which he did not speak to the subject throughout the whole session, but I don’t think that is for me! However, I can see how, with practice, one can develop a process that is flexible enough to work with different people in different circumstances, just as with interviewing.