retractāre, Krzysztof Kieslowski Is SnappedMonday, March 07, 2011
I investigated the discrepancy and found that in Spanish (and obviously portrait in English has the same Latin root) the word in Latin is:
(Del lat. retractāre, frec. de retrahĕre, retraer).
1. tr. Copiar, dibujar o fotografiar la figura de una persona o de una cosa.
2. tr. Hacer la descripción de la figura o del carácter de una persona. U. t. c. prnl.
3. tr. imitar (‖ asemejarse).
4. tr. Describir con exacta fidelidad algo.
5. tr. retractar. U. t. c. prnl.
Real Academia Española © Todos los derechos reservados
The word in Latin means to draw out or take back from (which explains why we must retract an insult!). It means literally to take something from a person if we use to retratar (to take a portrait) in Spanish.
To me it means that in order to withdraw something from a person it has to be taken with some sort of permission. For me the portrait has always been a two-way process. It is a process of cooperation. Sometimes for cooperation to happen you must waste film, or talk a lot, all in order to tire your portrait subject (victim, perhaps?).
I will admit that there is merit to the snapshot, the portrait taken on the fly that is much in vogue now. This means that you grab an auto-focusing camera (a digital one) which fits comfortably in your hand and you spring it on somebody unawares at a party. These photographs fill monitor space in flickr (and yes if you look the word up on the net you will note it is in lower case). They are the norm and very popular. So are the ones popular with my granddaugher who loves to stick her cell phone in front of her and then snaps terrible distorted pictures of herself.
The portrait, where someone sits (even if they stand) and pose and look into a camera and you give directions to move slightly to the left or right and to nod down a tad and then to be serious or smile is in a period of remission or withdrawal. It is literally retracting or retreating.
Such posed portraits are now seen as stiff. Because they are posed, the person photographed is able to hide their true self. They are not caught unawares. They have time to put up the false front, to raise the shields.
One of the biggest critics of this type of photography was my subject of a couple of days ago. Elliott Erwitt had nothing but scathing remarks when I asked him his opinion of Yousuf Karsh and of Annie Leibovitz. He would probably hate the portrait I took of him.
There was one man (I can only remember a few) who really knew what I was doing and not only didn’t mind but rose to the occasion. On October 1994 the Globe & Mail assigned me to photograph Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. He smoked like a chimney and did not look well. His attitude during his interview to arts writer Christopher Dafoe seemed to be of one who was accepting his fate. The fact is that he died a couple of years later during open heart surgery. The man was born only a year before I was.
When I screwed on a deep green filter on to my Mamiya lens (which I must admit now I did not focus with care so this picture is decidedly unsharp) Kieslofski told me, “I worked in theatre and I know exactly what you are doing. You are going to make me look older, almost moribund.” And he then smiled at me. I took my shots.
I like the shot even if it is unfashionable. It is not a snapshot and the man when he faced me gave me the look he thought I wanted which happened to coincide with what I wanted. Is it a true likeness?
Are the pictures on flickr true likenesses? They are if you think that the snapshots of you make you look like you. But has anything of you been withdrawn? Have you drawn out something from that person you snapped?
Krzysztof Kieslowski - Blue-White-Red & Green