Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Comparing some Contemporary Portraiture

Making portraits is temporarily on hold, awaiting arrangement of some further sessions; and I need find a way to get the wide angle image of my own face off the front of my blog; but, more importantly, I have been following through some reading/study of a few examples of relatively recent portrait-making, which is written up here.
This not being a piece of rigid academic study, I am not going to carefully record when I might quote from someone or other, but what lies below is combined from - 'The Photograph as Contemporary Art' by Charlotte Cotton; 'Training Your Gaze' by Roswell Angier; 'How to Read a Photograph' by Ian Jeffrey; and 'Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before' by Michael Fried.

Joel Sternfeld - 'Stranger Passing', for example; street photography; essentially deadpan portrait photography; stop people and ask them to 'pose', in front of a large camera on a tripod; a record of their personalised uncertainties; he has 'negotiated' and their reaction becomes a 'portrayed fact'; no quick hits or instant revelations; he invites us into the portraits; and they feel less sudden than they actually were.
Luc Delahaye - 'L'Autre' - using a hidden camera on the Paris Metro (cf. Walker Evans); close range and usually just the face; achieve, as near as possible, 'zero authorial presence'; presented in a photobook, with a sense of repetitiveness; uniform determination to absent themselves; painfully aware of exposure to gaze (in a carriage with strangers, each alone, and yet all sharing the same feelings); yet, obviously, completely unaware of the camera's gaze; 'obsessively' records the 'fact' of 'faces on hold'.
Rineke Dijkstra - teenagers on beaches; ask them to be photographed, facing the camera, but with no other 'direction'; full length images; drawing attention to aspects of behaviour that escape conscious control; vulnerability, physical self-consciousness, awkwardness - but with no sense of taking advantage (cf. Diane Arbus?); at point of transition from sea to land - and from child to adult; self-revelation; awareness and unconsciousness respond to the 'problem of posing'.
Thomas Ruff - Portraits - front pose, head and shoulders, even lighting; images of 'friends' (fellow students) with a request for 'lack of expression'; camera 'captures a picture not reality'; cold clarity of a 'likeness', echoing the ID photograph; lack of emotion; playing with the apparent certainty of a frontal pose & the expectation that we can understand a subject; confound our expectations of discovering a person's character through their appearance.

These are over-simplified generalisations of the descriptions, interpretations and analysis of the work but they suffice for my purposes here.  I am drawn to these pieces of work by some distinguished contemporary photographers (and I would draw a parallel with, for example, the landscape photography of Jem Southam, to which I was attracted when studying around the Landscape course.  Reflecting on 'Why?':-
  • I feel drawn towards an edge, towards a boundary of what contemporary photographic art is doing/can do. (One of many potential edges, I might say.)
  • This work strips away and pares down towards some bare essentials; honing down towards some fundamental questions.
What does it mean to make a photographic portrait image of someone? Does it actually mean anything? Why, as aviewer, am I drawn to all these essentialy similar, yet at the same time very different images of people that I don't know and that don't mean anything at all to me?

Some honest responses:
  • because I know that someone I respect has decided to make this image;
  • because I know that others I respect have written about and reviewed the outcomes;
  • but also because the images record the fact of a human moment, to which I, as a fellow human, respond with fascination;
  • because, in my learning and development, I am interested in the making, the negotiation (where it has happened), the planning/intent, and the decisions.
But it is the 'deadpan', stripped away simplicity, focusing onto the moment and what it reveals in the individual images and the series.  At present, that is what is interesting me most in photographing people; and in looking at the way others have photographed people.

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