The photograph above was included in a compilation of “100 Portraits” assembled by Andy Adams and Larissa Leclair for FotoWeek DC. I came across this compilation by way of J. Wesley Brown’s post, “What is a ‘Portrait?’”, which I originally saw reblogged at Photographs on the Brain.
In his post, Brown writes,
What first got me thinking about portraits seeming to lack a solid definition was Flak’s 100 Portraits selection. When I first looked through the selection I found myself thinking, “But a lot of these aren’t portraits.”
A close up of a mouth/teeth, someone’s back, an x-ray of a sculpture, the top of someone’s head shot from above, the side of someone’s head obscured by their winter hat with just a nose and hint of an eye sticking out, a person’s silhouette, back-lit so that no features are recognizable.
There’s no denying the taste of the selection here - they are all excellent photos, but to me these are not portraits. Were I a magazine editor having sent you out on assignment to shoot someone’s single portrait for an article, I would consider these failures and send someone else to re-shoot.
In Brown’s post, this notional magazine editor joins such charming argumentative devices as appeals to dictionary definitions, analogy to religion and the invocation of Richard Dawkins, indignant objection to a metaphorical “portrait of Ireland,” and the airy assertion that,
Only once both parties have agreed on a definition of what is to be discussed, can you have a productive discussion. Philosophy majors are well aware of this. So Why does the photo community seem to have no definition for a portrait.
In the initial draft of this post, I spent a few hundred words dwelling on how poor Brown’s argumentation is. This was fun for me, but not very constructive or interesting, so I omitted it from subsequent drafts. Suffice to say that what Brown is demonstrating is not philosophy major reasoning, but grade school rhetoric. No great loss, since the reasoning of undergraduate philosophers is usually nothing to write home about, anyway.
So, setting aside those non-constructive paragraphs, do I have something constructive to say about the question? Maybe; let’s see.
To begin with, we should take a step back and consider what it is that Brown means by “what is a portrait?” — he claims to want a communal definition, but going by the content of his post, his rhetorical devices, and the kinds of examples he is interested in, one suspects he does not actually want the definition itself, but rather a criterion for exclusion which can be used to justify his instinctive objection to the identification of certain photographs as portraits.
I suppose some people would argue that all definitions can serve this function, but I don’t think that is true, except in some technical domains which are reliant on rigorously defined self-consistent formal systems, as in math or analytic philosophy. Is photography such a domain? I don’t think so, except in those technical areas of photographic practice which abut chemistry and physics. So when we talk about photographs as art or craft (as opposed to science), we are communicating not in a formal system but in natural, common language.
In common language, the task of definition and the task of identification are in practice quite separable, as in the familiar dictum regarding pornography — “I know it when I see it.” (A phrase which I think bears on many photographic conundrums, since they often arise from frustrations regarding the incompatibility of knowing-by-seeing with our verbal attempts to articulate what we know.)
Underneath his rhetorical flourishes, what Brown is really saying is not, “I want to know what a portrait is,” or even, “I want us all to come together and say what a portrait is,” but, “the fact that someone called these particular photographs portraits makes me uncomfortable.” Or, “I know a portrait when I see it, and this isn’t it.” Because this is the real nature of Brown’s objection, it would actually not make matters better to try to apply more rigorous logic to it, or to suggest more applicable philosophical constructs like family resemblance.
The trouble is, standards of the “I know it when I see it,” type, while not invalid or epistemologically inferior, are necessarily subjective and personal. We say, “I know it when I see it,” not, “we all know it when we see it” — or, rather, when people make statements of the latter kind, they are not speaking inclusively about all observers, they are circumscribing a community of the like-minded.
One cannot really go from this sort of instinctive, personal recognition and understanding to an objective, universal standard. Nor would it be beneficial to do so. After all, how much great art (especially, how much great photography) owes its existence to a more exclusive definition of a term? I think the opposite is the case, really — that quite a lot of the interesting and important bits of our photographic history are owed in part to stretching, bending, distorting, challenging basic terms and concepts. Would New Topographics be better if the exhibition had only included photographs which demonstrated obviously and unambiguously topographic images? Less rhetorically, would it be better if it had been confined to photographs which were obviously and unambiguously landscapes, and excluded the more genre-ambiguous work, like Wessel’s and Shore’s?
Of course, this is not to say that there is a direct correlation between reduced literality and increased quality. Each photograph and each sequence (book/exhibit/etc.) must be judged on its own merits. It is also important that a sequence be judged as a sequence. I would not say that in sequencing the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts — there are many sequences in which the opposite is true. But certainly the whole is not interchangeable with the sum.
So, to return to the original case, I would argue that the question of “Is Maisel’s photograph a portrait” must be disentangled from the question, “Is 100 Portraits a sequence of portraits.”
Is Maisel’s photograph (the sculpture x-ray to which Brown refers) a portrait? It’s a question which does not have an obvious answer. If a portrait is a representation of a human face and body, then it is a portrait. If a portrait is a direct representation of an actual human’s face and body, then it is not — or perhaps it is a copy of a portrait, but not a portrait in itself. Of course, if that is the standard, how would one classify a drawn or painted portrait which was made from a photograph or from imagination or memory, or one which was made only in part from a living model, or which was made from multiple models?
Maisel’s statement on History’s Shadow puts the relationship this way:
The x-ray serves as a means to explore mythological themes expressed through ancient objects. The shadow-worlds they occupy are informed by the black space surrounding the images, which in some instances becomes a vast nether world, and in others becomes the velvety ground of some kind of brain scan/portrait. The project’s title of History’s Shadow refers both to the literal images that the x-rays create as they are re-photographed, and to the metaphorical content formed by the past from which these objects derive.
Maisel differentiates the literal and the metaphorical functions of the images, and identifies the portraitlike aspect as belonging to one of these functions, but not both. While Maisel’s interpretation does not automatically trump all others merely because it is his photograph, I think it is pretty reasonable — and I think that the distinction is just as valid for photographers like Minor White, who made literal portraits that had entirely other metaphorical functions. In either case, I think the best answer to “is it a portrait,” is “Yes and no.”
But Maisel did not title this a portrait, nor (as far as I know) does he identify the series as comprising portraiture. Brown’s objection pertains to its inclusion in 100 Portraits, and on that point, we must consider Maisel’s x-ray not only in itself, but also in terms of how it stands in the whole sequence, and what function it serves in that context.
So, is 100 Portraits as a whole a sequence of portraits? I say it unambiguously is. What is more, it is a sequence which, if it is about anything, is about the phenomenal diversity of portraiture — meaning both the daunting diversity of human subjects and the almost-as-daunting diversity of photographic strategies and styles which can be applied to those subjects. It is a celebration of the photographer’s freedom in depicting human beings. As such, it is utter goofiness to object to its inclusion of images whose taxonomic classification as portraits is not universally unobjectionable.
I should point out that I don’t intend this observation strictly as praise. I think it would be entirely fair to question to what extent this diversity as such is actually interesting, and to what extent the specific sequencing in 100 Portraits makes the best possible use of the individual photographs. The title and arbitrary number would also be valid targets. Even more so the statement, which presents the diversity of images as a celebration of the way “contemporary photo culture is marked by a continuous flow of images online” (a rather ambiguous virtue), and ends on the sentence:
In this context, projected several times larger than life, these portraits look back at us and embody a louder voice in the discourse of the gaze.
Which is simplistic, pretentious, vacuous, and frankly creepy. (However, given how hard it is to write non-shitty statements in these matters, I think the authors should be given some slack.)
But in any case, whether 100 Portraits succeeds or fails (for what it’s worth, I think on the whole it does more of the former than the latter), the taxonomic standard by which its individual photographs were identified as portraits is about the least important and interesting measure by which to judge it.
Hopefully this has been a somewhat useful approach to this particular case, and to some of the issues that Brown raised. None of it has actually come near to being an answer to the question, “What is a portrait,” since such an answer would actually have been off-topic, given the disingenuous way in which the question was posed.
Still, I probably owe the reader a sense of what I mean when I say “portrait” — so here it is:
I use “portrait” to describe a photograph which is principally of a person (“person” having a variable relationship to “human body”; the particular relationship between person and body will depend on the photographer’s approach, the subject, and the context) and in which the person is a willing participant.
I think that’s a good enough definition to go by, when I need to use one, for my own purposes — and it is one which does not fit several of Brown’s questioned examples, although some it does. I would not, however, suggest it as a universally valid standard for exclusion of photographs from the portrait genre — although in the interest of full disclosure, I have sometimes used the latter aspect to argue “that’s not a portrait” when dealing with photographs that I considered street photography which were presented as portraits.
A more interesting (indeed, the only really worthwhile) way to answer the question, “what is a portrait,” would be an in-depth historical approach to the intellectual and aesthetic genealogy of the portrait, and/or to the social construction and use of portraits. It’s possible something along these lines exists — if anyone knows of a good book that deals with the topic, I’d certainly be interested.
Postscript: Maisel’s x-ray is not the only case Brown raises — I picked it because I was interested in 100 Portraits and the x-ray is arguably the most extreme case out of the hundred. It’s not the most extreme case Brown raises, however — that would be Leo Mendonca’s photograph of a building with a large billboard ad depicting a woman. Brown considers it questionable as the winner of a portrait competition. I would not personally leap to call this photograph a portrait, but I would consider it unobjectionable to call it a photograph about portraiture. Whether or not I would pick it as the winner to a contest is hard to say, but who gives a shit about photo contests, anyway? (That’s the other reason I went with Maisel’s x-ray.)