What is a Portrait?
If I am to spend my time looking at a portrait, I will want several things from it: an increase in my knowledge through learning something meaningful to my life about the subject or about existence; an increase in the sense of my own humanity through being transformed by the humanity inherent in the depiction; or an increase in my sense of curiosity and wonder about life.
I can reduce these demands to three words: knowledge, love, and beauty.
A photograph is centrally concerned with time. Each image is of a singular moment in human history at a particular place and under a certain light, of a specific subject. It is unrepeatable and frozen for heritage as long as the medium it has been stored on lasts. This singularity holds such a rich wealth of information but more importantly, even the image becomes a part of our collective culture the moment the shutter is released. It records the history of the people and things within the image. The wooden dresser is scared by use, clothes hang limply on a body perhaps worn from labour, and the face of the subject reads as a roadmap of that person’s life up to the moment of recording. And yet there is more to consider.
This ‘more’, is about being, about the realm within the subject behind the roadmap of lines and marks gained in or perhaps suffered from life. What do the eyes tell us? What is the difference between the left eye looking inwards to the subconscious (or a Jung thought – towards the soul) and the right eye looking outwards towards the world? What does the set of the mouth tell us? Are the edges of the lips pointing down as though the mouth has been set by a semi-permanent scowl; between the eyes and the mouth is there something cynical, hostile, inviting, joyous or…? How are the nostrils: set, flaring, relaxed? And so on through all the features of the face, the position of the body, the details of the clothing.
How do you tell the viewer about those roadmaps, those lines cavorting from the eyes like crows or the tunnels trailing down towards the upper lip? The photographer can rationalise his view: “The more accurately I show the facial blemishes, the more truthful the image will be”, or to say it another way, “The more faithful the photograph will be to reality”.
But I wonder, if the blemishes detract from the eyes, and, therefore, the story of the soul, does their high contrast rendering or further sharpening by the Unsharp Mask, help or hinder seeing the more profound inner truth of the sitter?
For me, there is often a question about how to balance the visual emphasis of texture with form. This is a simple rule of thumb – a greater concentration of the former, distracts from the later and vis-a-versa.
How then does the photographer’s sensitivity – read as ‘humanity’ – take part in the rendering? When knowing that a particular emphasis on a person’s pitted skin, large pores or other features thought to be uncomplimentary will bring a negative response to the image by the subject, what do you do? Insist on ‘your truth’ or find another avenue?
This may be compromised by the photographer’s potential debt to history. Should we always portray in the way we believe is the most faithful so that in the dim future, our heirs will be able to view the truth? But of course, as truth is relative, that becomes another dark tunnel to navigate through. Think of it this way, that the truth may not be just what we think is the reality but as well what the sitter would wish to project as his own inner reality expressed on the surface of his body – less deep wrinkles, a smoother skin and so on. You could call these contemporaneous but contradictory truths.
This is not an intellectual game. Photographers know that we can manage light, media, raw files and our final prints in many ways. We also know that the two-dimensional frozen image of our kinetic three-dimensional world, and the limited gamma we use (relative to the human eye) that emerges from the camera negative or file, impose upon us a very different reality, one which we have to wrangle into what we think is striking, honest and fair. You may see I am arguing that the photographic process is neither a particularly accurate rendering of measurable truth and further, that at any one moment there are multiple realities to explore. And one’s own may be the least important.
I have studied and still look at and admire the uncompromising psychologically penetrating portraits of Richard Avedon, the embracing warm portraits of Irving Penn and the ‘one- world, one-people’ photographs of Paul Strand. The intelligence of these images has been and still does remain a beacon to me.
I learned from them to photograph people’s faces as a guide to their interior lives. I continue to make portraits and have come to understand the meaning of Stieglitz’s extended essay of his lover and wife Georgia O’Keefe.
I photograph my wife over and over and have done so across many years as our relationship has developed greater levels of trust and we ourselves have developed greater self-knowledge. Together we have been able to create something more detailed, more multifaceted with each others help. For me, they are a tribute to this wonderful woman and for you they are a gift of Intimacy.
Why would a stranger be interested in this? Why should I show these to a stranger? There are three reasons.
The first is because many of the pictures work on their own as individual images, which I hope offer a seductive formal elegance as well as the gratifying charm and entertaining beauty of our own species and in some cases the seductiveness of sexual love.
The second refers to the need we have for stories to be told to us: stories that offer a completion in life, which often we don’t have. In the photographs of her journey through life and aging, there is perhaps enough of a story to remind the viewer of their own narrative and the myths of their own lives.
Third, in our harsh undereducated, infantilized, brutalized world, a testament of love, a love story, a true love story may help others to realize and recognize that love is real, palpable and possible for all of us, if it is possible for two of us.
That is for me, what a portrait is.