The Next Big PortraitWednesday, January 29, 2014
What would happen if we were to mount a camera on a tripod in a studio and mark a spot when any of you would stand facing the camera? We would then bring in, one at a time (and without moving the camera in any way) your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, you boyfriend, your girlfriend, your postman, your best friend, the teacher you like, the teacher you don’t like, the sports coach, the principal, etc? Would you then, after shuffling those photographs (all glossy 8x10s) be able to pin down who took which one? Of all those photographs which on would be the real you? Would you say that they all added up to a complete you? Where we to insert them into a special computer (this was 1970), press a button, would the resulting one image be a complete you (almost complete as more within your circle had not photographed you)?
I have always maintained that a portrait is special for one particular reason. The word in English, portrait comes from the French which means a likeness in a drawing or painting (much later a photograph) of a person and especially if it is a head and shoulders likeness. I believe that French word probably came from the Latin. In Spanish that link is direct. Retrato (portrait), retratar (to take, make, paint or draw a portrait) comes from the Latin retractus which means to go back, to take back or as I see it to peel from a person something of their essence. And by essence, in Platonic terms what makes one individual not be another.
It is obvious that one’s essence is a most personal and treasured possession. We rarely lower our guard to show anybody who we really are. In fact we may not be aware of who we really are so we show the world who we think we are. A good artist (portraitist) is perhaps at the very least able to penetrate the smoke and mirrors.
Thus a good portrait is a blend of who we think we are, what we want the world to know we are and what that portraitist may understand (or perhaps not) see in us. A portrait, a good one, is a battleground.
As a bit of evidence I have placed here two portraits of former BC Premier Bill Vander Zalm shortly after he resigned in disgrace in 1991. Equity Magazine, a business magazine at the time obtained an exclusive interview with Vander Zalm in which he had stipulated that the article be generally favorable and that the portrait of him be a pleasant one. Shortly after I took the pleasant (colour) photograph I decided to take another in b+w for myself. Which one of these two portraits is the real Vander Zalm?
|Annie Leibovitz - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
Before the advent of photography (and specifically portrait photography) in the 1840s, there was a big industry of portrait painters and miniature portrait painters. The latter were not necessarily short painters but they painted small, almost always oval-shaped likenesses who many years before Photoshop liquefied, diffuse glowed, healing brush tools, removed unsightly bags and paunches, etc, idealized would-be partners in a potential regal matrimony contract.
Except for the very rich who could afford these pioneer air-brushers photography killed their business. By the 1860s, if you did not have a business-card-sized carte de visite you were a nobody. It was equivalent to living in the 21st century and not having a either a web page (a remnant of the 20th century) or selfies to post in facebook (notice that the word has to be written in lowercase).
Photography took over and the portrait photographer became king (an excellent and talented exception being Julia Margaret Cameron).
In Canada the concept of a photographic portrait is moribund if not dead. A happy exception is Ottawa photographer Paul Couvrette who photographs Ottawa politicians, Papal Nuncios and many others working in the political bureaucracy of our capital.
My portraits of people from the past (and my past) are often seen surrounded by black ribbons in funereal memorials. Sometime in a very near future those funereal memorials will either feature selfies or facebook captures of the dead one.
With all that in mind I read with interest, shock, amazement on how photography has changed to the point that this article (I have cut it out from my hard copy NY Times and placed inside one of my best photography books, Photo Historica – Landmarks in Photography- Rare Images From the Collection of The Royal Photographic Society), text by Pam Roberts) that photography as a branch of art at the Museum of Modern Art, and other important museums might just drop the term completely.
At age 71 I do not particularly care in what direction photography ends up or in its languid process/transition. But I did note that the article does skip one important branch of photography and that is the portrait. I believe that the folks at the NY Times and the museums they write about must next tackle the subject The Next Big Portrait