I'm Not August In August But I TryMonday, August 25, 2008
(Del lat. retractus).
1. m. Pintura o efigie principalmente de una persona.
2. m. Descripción de la figura o carácter, o sea, de las cualidades físicas o morales de una persona.
3. m. Aquello que se asemeja mucho a una persona o cosa.
Real Academia Española © Todos los derechos reservados
A cat retracts its claws. That verb retract comes from the Latin retractus and it means to pull back, to retreat, to disavow and to take back. I have often wondered how the Spanish word for portrait, retrato, can come from that Latin word retractus. The aspect of retreat or pull back could have something to do with the peeling of layers from a person's barriers until one is able to look at the person as the person is. Or as I sometimes say with the usual cliché, look into that person's soul.
I have always prided myself in my ability to take portraits. I rarely justify portraits with no eye contact. I get away with it when I photograph a dreamer. A dreamer can be a poet and sometimes a musician, actor or playwright. But I would never photograph a politician as a dreamer. We want to trust a politician. We want to look into a politician's eyes. The same "rule" applies to business folk although in the 60s and 70s BC Hydro CEO's could dream away in profile when we saw the rosy future of energy and technology.
Since I started taking serious pictures of Rebecca some 7 years ago I have been lambasted by my relatives who cannot understand why I don't take her picture smiling. As soon as I ask Rebecca to pose for my camera she gets this look that has fascinated me for so long. Why would I want her to smile? Why is it so important that people smile for the camera?
My favourite portrait photographer of all time (if I forget Philippe Halsman for a while) has always been the German August Sander who from the beginning of the 20th century until the early 60s took photographs of people mostly staring at the camera. He captured his subject's inherent humanity. Sander portrayed his respect for his subjects while at the same time drawing out of them a self respect for what they did and were, even if they were beggars. Sander's subjects almost never smiled and they never did things for the camera.
When I showed Rosemary my latest photograph of Rebecca by the fern (a fern that we have kept alive for 15 years) she said nothing. I insisted she say something and she explained that there was no expression on Rebecca's face. My daughter Ale (in Vancouver over the weekend) was kinder, "You are the artist, you understand, you see something which we perhaps cannot see."
Besides the very Mexican Ms Hernandez I have a new model whose salient features include a stare that can make you feel instant guilt, fear and even for this old man a rustling in the loins as Frank G. Slaughter would have written in one of his medical novels. Her name is Cordelia and you can see some pictures of her stare here. The staring gentleman is Irish film director Neil Jordan.