The Subject of Portraiture

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by bjorke, Oct 31, 2004.

  1. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Here you go :smile:

    IMO, it's an issue of context. The subject of the simple and direct sentence "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen" might be the immediacy of a single day, but it also opens "1984" and begins the loveless spine of that work.

    [​IMG]
    London, 2002

    If you are photographing against a flat canvas, what does that mean? What is hidden, what is there in the negative? What are you seeking? What if these people were at home, at work, in front of the stars and stripes, or dying slowly in an AIDS hospice? Comfortable suburban portraiture is just that. Probing portraiture, even suburban, is revelatory and requires a specific vector of intent from the photographer. Portraits can reveal individually or be the bricks and mortar of a larger structure. What about them compels you, about the images, the circumstances, the specific or the generic character of these people?

    "Marley was dead, to begin with."
     
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  2. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

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    As some photographer or other once said, a portrait is always about two people: the sitter, and the photographer. There is always something of the photographer in every portrait, which I find wholly appropriate and somehow comforting.

    I think too many portraits are only about what the subject looks like, rather who the subject is at that moment. The reason I prefer to photograph people in their natural environment is that their familiar surroundings 1) are very much a part of them, and 2) provide an atmosphere where it is easier and more comfortable to coax something deeper than a surface smile.

    It takes very little environment in a portrait to give context and meaning to an image. When photographing a child on mom and dad's bed, I don't have to include the whole bed; I can photograph the child quite close-up, and the little bits of pillow, headboard, and blanket are sufficient to tell the story.

    Maybe slightly off-topic, but I think the temptation is to label any bit of context in a portrait as "distracting".

    OK, I'm very tired right now, so I'll have to reread and rephrase some of this after I've slept a bit. :wink:

    - CJ
     
  3. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I think August Sander's portraits are some of the strongest ever made. They reveal the individual and the context in which they lived. He is a great one to look for inspiration. Bjorke, you've said very eloquently what I think Sander achieved. I also believe that a strong portrait is a strong photograph.
     
  4. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    When I'm shooting a person...
    For me it is about the object as a physical form first (shape, contours, texture and colour/tone). The psychological is second and is like gilding.

    Environmental portraiture is something different and is less about the person and more about people, and the human environment.

    My approach may make my portraiture some thing different than true portraiture. I really don't think about the story being captured as much as does this 'work' for me. It is all intuitive. After the fact I can apply all sorts of words or meanings and some of it may not be tripe, but for the most part the picture is good if I intuitively understand the subject and how to shoot it.
     
  5. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    I agree with Suzzane 100% , August Sanders work has a very strong place in my heart.
     
  6. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    While there is an appeal to such an approach (I've done it myself on occasion) I have a hard time with it philosophically, as it reduces the person to a set of disparate decorative objects (viz. the now-standard pomo feminist criticism of Weston). In a reductive sense, this is true for all portraiture (even more so for painters, and esp for advertising). However the quick dismissal of "psychology" I find... difficult.

    [​IMG]
    11 months

    I hope the post above does not sound like a condemnation of non-environmental portraiture, there is a long history of successful studio portraiture (and a lot of environmental portraiture that is so manipulated as to erase the environment/studio distinction). Nor do I think, as in my example, that an involuntary subject always makes the best subject. A short session with Bergman's A Kind of Rapture will dissolve such a notion.

    I hope that c6h6o3 also chimes in. Why is there a need to "reconcile" the subject of a portrait? What is meant by this phrase, that the presence of the sitter's identity is so clear as to challenge that of the photographer?
     
  7. Nicole

    Nicole Member

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    Bjorke, I love that shot! What lens, settings did you use on this?
     
  8. modafoto

    modafoto Subscriber

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    A lot of my portraits are not to show who the person is. The model is used to show a certain emotion or expression that I like to show. The model, of course, is of big influence on the final result, but I use them to express what I want to show. I instruct and tell exactly what I am after. And then we play along and see what happens (while I instruct along the way).

    With kids, of course, I use a different approach. Then I put the instructions away and simply capture what I like.

    Greetings Morten
     
  9. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Bjork,
    I rely, however successfully or not, on my innate understanding. It really isn't as much dismissal of the of the psychological, but a reliance upon my experience as a person and my development as an artist (or fluency in the medium) to express my self without being deliberate (I choose this word because every other I can come up with-- contrived, intellectualized, etc. -- reads in a derogatory manner which is not my intent).

    In other words, I know it is a man/woman/child that I am shooting and I know that their humanity is going to emerge. I just don't think too hard about that and focus on the object.

    I am not referring to portraiture for pay, so my motivations and expectations are different than others.
     
  10. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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  11. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Thanks Nicole, it's a 35mm shot using an 85mm lens, wide-open at f/1.8, on Delta 400 processed in Ilford HC developer.

    Suzanne, Stieglitz wrote: "To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still." Which seems so obvious.

    [​IMG]
    Beach House

    Yet, to concentrate on form alone seems to my mind to remove the idea of verbs -- even if the verb is simply "be" as in a photo of person XXX being XXX on this day, in this place, at this time in their life. The inevitable realities of those issues, to my mind, seem of far greater import than the form, even in the most polished portrait.

    Obvious formal portraitists like Jock Sturges (particularly his Irish schoolyard series) and Avedon (anything on white) seem quite insistent on this notion of "being-ness right now." And both have had long-term contacts with the subjects of many of their best-known works. I suspect that these contacts are driven from something far deeper than texture and compositional form.

    (Going back to re-read "Tete A Tete" and "Borrowed Dogs"....)
     
  12. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    The activity itself is capturing a verb. Deepness can be what you and your subject bring to the event by your desire and their state. To recognize a significance when composing is one thing, to plan is is a contrivance -- which is fine but not my way of doing things.

    P. Pearlstien would be my example.

    It has always been my thought that artists, historians and critics’ words are great for understanding the act after the fact.

    For me it would be an entangling burden to go into a shoot with a severe understanding of what it was I was attempting to do.
     
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  13. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    ..And for me too!

    In the process, there is one "engine" that keeps me going... providing the energy necessary. That is the constant little discoveries: the change in the perceived appearance with a slight change in the direction of the light; the shift caused by a minor repositioning of a hand; the direction the eyes are looking in (forgive the syntax). All that keeps everything fresh, and reminds me that every image will be new.

    Thinking about the photograph is something similar to "working" in pencil sketching. Some thought/working is necessary ... there can be no image without it, but over working/ thinking is not good.
    There is the general, diffuse, misty concept ... from there "things fall into place", for a time. More pencil lines, or more positioning and direction of the model, more staring at the ground glass - viewfinder, can only degrade the image by destroying spontaneity.

    I often wonder about some, that I see with their eye to the viewfinder.... staring intently. One minute ... two minutes (or so it seems), with no other action, such as focusing. What are they looking for? What are they waiting for? .. some bolt of lightning to strike? .. or are they trying to advertise to the public that they are careful and meticulous?

    Before the large format crowd descends on me, I'll expand this a little: To "see" an image, and "set up for it", taking meter readings, Shift, tilt, swing, focus... and then wait for three or four hours for the "right light" is not overworking - is is part of the "necessary" activity ... not an extended thought process. Waiting for the light is not the same as staring at the ground glass for three or four hours.

    My opinion, anyway. Your mileage may vary.
     
  14. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Then by all means read Delacroix's journals, a fine example of writing in-process and before the fact.

    This morning I got emailed a set of little quotes from my friend Michal, including
    and
    which are both adequately cryptic yet suggestive.

    The kernel that started this thread was c6h6o3's mention of the problem of "reconciliation" in portraiture. Again without his own clarification, I can only guess that he means a reconciliation of (artist's) intent with the final (sitter's) effect (I set aside the additional complications of intent supplied by others -- whether photo editors who need a shot of Xxxx for the Friday edition, or even Xxxx themselves coming into your studio and asking for a #3, please).

    What compels the photographer to choose to make a portrait of this person, in this setting? Does their intent skip across the surface or does it look for something inside? How can (should?) the photographer's intent survive the insistent presence of The Other embodied in the sittter? Is this image part of a larger multi-portrait statement or does it attempt to be the portrait, if not of a person's life, then at least of that person on this one frozen day? And crucially, which of these questions connect to us as we make, or try to make, new portraits?

    As photographers we arrive with a full flesh-and-blood person, part of the broad and overwhelming world, but we walk away with a wee colored rectangle. There is a certain gall to the act of equating the two. However much we may chose to read into a photo, it is always an ephemeral representation of something more immediate and meaty. A little taste of our own experience that we might just manage to grasp at, and hopefully share with others.

    Portraiture is certainly contingent upon the viewer as well -- if they don't know who Samuel Beckett is then the most brilliant portrait of him may only seem merely competent (my very first photo web site, with simply pictures of my children, was labelled "unknown celebrities" in recognition of this fact -- that my relatives' experience of seeing those photos would be radically different from the experience of a random web visitor).

    [​IMG]
    Film Professor Irving Burgie, Jr

    Someone's signature here on APUG currently quotes Edgar Degas, saying that what the artist sees is less important than what the artist helps others to see. Certainly I'd agree, it differentiates an artist from a simple self-involved flaneur. So while Ed has my ear:

     
  15. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    After reading this thread about the self conscious thought and the angst of people taking "portraits" I had to wonder by the responses if we are having a problem with definitions.

    What is a portrait? I mentioned in another thread, a picture of a person, has to be taken into the context and the intent that it was taken.

    Is any picture of a person a portrait?

    Is a portrait a setup controlled "study" of that persons face or body?

    Is a portrait a "grabshot" while walking down the street of a interesting person?

    Is a portrait a "snapshot" of a kid playing?

    Is a portrait a poorly lit, poorly executed, shot of a person just sitting there?

    Is a portrait a photograph of a person that includes the intimate surrounds that relate back to him/her?

    Are all these things portraits?

    Are people here far too self involved in their "motivation" as they are shooting this masterpiece?



    Michael McBlane
     
  16. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    I will, but these bastards here expect me to do something before they'll pay me. So I'll have to write it tonight. I should have lots of time to bloviate as I watch the election returns come in.
     
  17. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I guess that is what I strive not to be. It really is for me just anouther act with a camera, and my aesthetic used to filter a specific subject. I certainly appreciate Bjork's thoughtful commentary.

    I have in the past and will in the future, devise and hammer away at a theme. Avadon's "In America's West" might be of this nature -- it is purely a premeditated construct.

    Having a thought out predisposition is fine and grand things can occur (or not). I elect to rely on my inante ability when shooting people.
     
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  18. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    Aas far as the "Are theys" go ... Yes. You didn't ask for a definition that included some sort of quality factor, did you?

    Interesting that August Sander should be mentioned, previously. To me his works are all `snapshots' ... "Go stand there and I'll take your picture", but then again - *absolutely wonderful* snapshots.

    Are people "too involved" ... "self" or otherwise?? I don't think so ... but then, I don't know. Is it possible to be TOO involved?

    I'm trying to think of a Concert Pianist being "too" involved - or a Figure Skater, or a Skydiver ... I can imagine being not involved enough (really grim as far as the Skydiver) ... but "TOO"???
     
  19. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Ed, I think the operative word was 'self' as in too self involved. you are correct -- It is hard to be too involved with the work.
     
  20. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    Ed Wrote

    Are people "too involved" ... "self" or otherwise?? I don't think so ... but then, I don't know. Is it possible to be TOO involved?

    I think we can agree that there is a hell of a difference between "involved" and "self involved".

    If a piano player or a skydiver or a figure skater is in constant angst about what they are doing as some here have represented about their "portraiture" I would suggest that that is maybe "too SELF involved".

    In other discussions I believe you have agreed to the concept that when "involved" in any endeavor, that when we are constantly "thinking" we are not letting the creative juices flow. That was my point, but you probably knew that.


    Michael
     
  21. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    Photography only became a fulfilling endeavor to me when I stopped trying to tell a story with it. To me, the only thing which has meaning is the image itself, and it has nothing to do with the subject. Edward Weston's pictures of urinals, bedpans, dead pelicans and beach detritus are just as compelling, and maybe more importantly, just as beautiful as his pictures of his lovers' nude bodies or the cypress trees and succulents of Point Lobos. When I used to read Weston's famous quote: "Composition is the strongest way of seeing" (perhaps I'm off a little, but you all know the quote) I always wanted to say to him: "Yeah, we know that. Please tell us something we don't know, like how to do it."

    Since one of photography's masters showed me how to do it, I no longer bristle intellectually when I hear that quote; I'm actually comforted by it now. In fact, I believe he failed to go far enough. He should have said: "Composition is the only way of seeing". After all, if you leave anything to chance in a photograph, how much do you really care about it? As Michael Smith is always so fond of reminding us, the photographer is responsible (such an important word) for every square millimeter of image area, just as a composer is responsible for every note in a musical composition. A superb demonstration of this concept is a careful listening to Mahler's 10th Symphony. Mahler wrote a piano score to all five movements. He then completely orchestrated the first movement (Adagio) and the third movement (Purgatorio). Then he died. Legions of musical scholars and composers have attempted orchestrations of the other three movements, and there are recordings of some good performing version out now of the whole symphony. But you can always hear the touch of the master's hand in the 1st and 3rd movements, and not in the others. He left nothing to chance and made every movement uniquely his own.

    So, how much of the composition in a portrait is the result of what I did, and how much of it is the result of a caprice of nature? A blink, a flickering scowl, a child's unexpected fidget-all these can ruin the most carefully composed portrait. But even more to the heart of the matter-a portrait, by definition, says something about the subject, especially environmental portraits. How do you compose that? To reveal the subject, the subject must present something of him/herself to the photographer, automatically limiting the photographer's compositional choices. And when you do find a compelling image, its evanescent nature almost guarantees that you can't capture it. By the time you push the button it's gone. Surely portraiture is the most difficult photography.
     
  22. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    (Written at 31,000 feet, somewhere over Oregon)

    A fascinating and somewhat surprising response, confirming my suspicions about a conflict between intent and effect but from a point much further down the “form” end of the “content vs form” axis than I had expected (by that I mean using the body as parts of an image element first and foremost, as opposed to using image elements as a means to bolster representation. No photograph or image is ever 100% at either endpoint of this axis!). Maybe I should have suspected as much given your classicist LF leanings and distaste for Garry Winogrand… yet portraitists like Sturges and Nixon also work with big negs. Your examples of Weston’s people are rather impersonal so it’s not surprising that they would lose in a character contest against, say, a rock or a bit of gnarled-up kelp.

    (Aside to Michael: in this case the choices for definition of “portrait,” while fuzzy, have been reduced, as previously written: a portrait made by choice of the photographer, rather than a third party (including the subject). So while I get your point about self-anxiety, at the same time a certain amount of artistic hand-wringing is perhaps justified. As Rob’t Frank wrote in his Guggenheim application, it can seem embarrassing to want to accomplish so much – but how else to justify all the work and frustration?)

    The other night Courtney & I went to see Sebastiao Salgado at UC Berkeley and during the conversation Salgado said that even in extremely remote cultures, cultures without the media saturation to which we are all accustomed, people have an innate notion of how to behave for the camera. My own read on that is that almost everyone treats the camera (or person holding the camera) socially – as opposed to privately. As Darwin (then later Klineberg, and most recently Ekman) has shown, expressions of emotion are largely innate and inherited, without regard to culture or social situation— the later researchers elaborated on how emotional inner states are moderated by cultural norms when in a social context. That is, everyone has the same response to, say, something unpleasant, but that every culture also has different ideas about how to handle that expression when other people are around. Once learned, these social masks are hard to remove.

    I think that what is often described as "penetrating" or "insightful" portraiture is what we get when the photographer manages to catch a moment when the displayed inner state, whatever it may be, most-closely corresponds to the outer state – that the subject’s body (including the face) is most like what it would be alone, or with a trusted private confidante. For someone within our same culture, the telltale signs of the social mask are as evident as are the genuine underlying emotions. For photographs of people outside our culture, the masks may still be there but we might not be able to read them — their variation may give us (the impression of) a more revealing glance.

    [​IMG]

    I suspect this may also be why children tend to photograph so well – their learned, adult expressions have yet to dominate their raw emotional connectedness. They are always "candid" – that is, unguarded. In the state so often asked for by formal portraitists of their older sitters: "just be natural." (The portraitists I thought of when this started were Avedon & HCB — in fact Tete a Tete and Portraits contain several portraits of the same people. Both sets of portraits show the shooters' wise knack for getting both kinds of shot, depending on the sitter....)

    This presents something of a paradox for the photographer – to develop a sense of intimacy so that the subject can be directed (if that’s what you want) without their guard and socially-presented persona getting in the way of that direction. Never easy.
     
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  23. modafoto

    modafoto Subscriber

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    A prime example of why I am saving up for the Canon 85 mm, f/1.8...

    Damn good picture!

    Morten
     
  24. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    No problem .. I did not translate "Self involvement" into something including "angst"... but rather, "involvement of the self".

    Agonziing over the work is not good. A good antidote to that frame of mind are the one- and two minutes poses in a Life Class. One cannot agonize .. there simply isn't emough time. Wthout that excess time the work flows - of necessity... and the overall improvement is, most of the time, astounding!!

    There may be a parallel in Small-bore Rifle shooting (of all places). It takes a LOT of practice, where one THINKS, heavily, about what one does... the postition of the feet, the elevation of the non-supporting arm; the position of the trigger finger ... a LOT of practice -- possibly described as "angst"; at least, not far from it. When the Match begins, the time for thought and practice is over - the skill is either there or it isn't - and no amount of agonizing/ effort will get it there in the time allotted.

    I work in my studio in much the same manner. I do not over-think or agonize - that is not the place for that type of activity. The best way, for ME, is to stay loose, and DO.
     
  25. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    I agree .. without question, the photographer *IS* responsible ... BUT...

    Unfortunately, we cannot completely CONTROL every square millimeter of a photograph - there is a difference. What landscape photographer (or anyone else) can exert precise control over every leaf, every rock, in the image?
    All that is possible is to make the best compromise we can.

    Am I CONCERNED with EVERYTHING in my photographs? Absolutely... however, I can, on my BEST day, only do the best I can with the what I have to work with.

    It is true ... a slight fidget, a blink, a twitch .., CAN "ruin" a photograph ... there is an equal, if not greater, chance that the photograph will be IMPROVED by the inclusion of these "defects", which prove the humanity of the subject.