Document and Artifice

"Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994," by Rineke Dijkstra (via SFMOMA) and “Untitled #405, 2000,” by Cindy Sherman (via MOMA).

Note: as you may have observed, we are fantastically behind schedule. So, set your time machines for “several months ago,” and join me in a topical journey into our semi-recent past. In this case, I’ll be discussing exhibitions which I saw in April and September of this year.

There is a bit of a running gag regarding me and portraits, that I only like them if I can’t see the subject’s face. (cf. here or here) And while there is a lot of portraiture that I like, it’s true that I generally don’t have much to say about traditional portraits — when I do end up talking about portraits, it’s usually outliers. (e.g., here or here)

So it was a subject of some speculation how I would respond to SFMOMA’s Dijkstra and Sherman exhibitions — two bodies of portraiture (or pseudo-portraiture in the case of Sherman) that are technically great and conceptually…well, let’s say fraught.

I perhaps should have had an easier time with Dijkstra than Sherman. There is at least some semblance of a documentary function at work in her photographs, and in general the farther a photograph is from recording some actual subject, and the closer it is to presentation of a construction or performance, the less comfortable I am with it. Not in this case, however.

I found Dijkstra’s photographs deeply off-putting. It’s tricky to pin down precisely why, though. Taken individually, they’re blandly enigmatic, which I think is more or less the default for large-format color portraits these days. They’re well-executed, and executed in service of a substantial organizing principle: recording subjects in periods of intense transition. (Adolescence, childbirth, military service, bullfighting, etc.)

The implication is that a photograph of a person in such a state will somehow provide more information, or more insight, or more truth — either into the subjects, or into humanity at large. In other words, Dijkstra’s photography seems to be working along philosophical principles similar to those of Shan Yu. Which is to say, it’s (a) creepy and (b) horseshit.

In fact, the way that Dijkstra polices contextualizing details within the frame systematically renders them less informative and less revealing — or, rather, it renders them informative and revealing only about Dijkstra. (Which I regard as a bug, although it can also be regarded as a feature.)

Dijkstra’s photographs form an incredible artifice — which would not necessarily be objectionable if they were not presented as offering an appearance-transcending insight. They deliver the viewer a visceral stimulus sterilized of context and specificity, but with a branding of verisimilitude. A bit like pornography presented in the format of an anatomy textbook.

None of which actually quite accounts for how much Dijkstra bothers me. That litany of complaints really only adds up to “boring,” rather than “offensive.” What pushes it over the line for me is, ultimately, a personal hangup about portraiture, and in particular about the relationship between the photographer and the subject. It’s something I’ve never had a lot of luck expressing succinctly or completely — which contributes to my reticence to discuss portraits on 1/125. (There’s nothing more annoying than a bias you can identify but not fully account for.)

The simplest way I can think to put it is: I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means. I respond positively to portraits where the subject seems to be putting up a fair fight in determining how they appear and what that appearance signifies.

This isn’t something that has a uniform objective measure — it can be a matter of whether the subject has chosen what clothing to wear, how to pose, etc., or it can be a matter of irrepressible personality. But manifested in whatever way, it’s the sense that the person has decided (how) to appear before the camera, and that the subject is therefore in some part a coauthor of their own photographed image.

The nature of Dijkstra’s project effectively precludes this — in some cases by photographing people in circumstances where their appearance is effectively beyond their control, and in other cases (esp. adolescent subjects) through interpretation which reduces the individual to a type. The most we can really deduce about them in terms of their agency relative to the observed photograph is that they consented to appear in it.

In contrast to this, Cindy Sherman’s work — which I had never really been exposed to in a comprehensive way before, just piecemeal — was really refreshing. Which is a strange thing to say about something so extremely meta. I mean, come on: Sherman’s work is a classic example of a medium being fully up its own ass.

Well, it’s a classical example apart from one thing: it’s funny. It is at least some of the time fully laugh-out-loud funny, and while not everyone is going to appreciate it (no joke is truly universal), it has one of the hallmark features of good comedy: it scales well with regard to knowledge of what the joke is about. And as comedy, it can in some ways be more truthful or more honest than a factual treatment of the same subjects would be.

The nature of the comedy is also relevant to my issues with Dijkstra — Sherman is basically doing the polar opposite of what Dijkstra is doing, and the comedy in her photography springs from that.

Baker: What about humor? It seems like there’s more license to laugh in some images than others.

Sherman: I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies. ("Cindy Sherman: Interview with a Chameleon")

Sherman’s work is artificial, but transparently so, at least when presented in the correct context. (If encountered out of context, a viewer could easily mistake some of them for documents.) It is an honest artifice, which is infinitely superior to a dishonest document. And I say this as someone who is pretty ill-equipped, both in taste and in knowledge, to appreciate artificial and conceptual photography.

And in terms of my particular hangups, the performance nature of Sherman’s work is surprisingly appealing. It would be doubly incorrect to call them self-portraits, but they are a case where the person in the photograph is in complete control of the way they appear in the frame, and what that appearance means. Normally this is only true for certain kinds of model-photographer collaborations, and in the case of subjects who — intentionally or not, by choice of the photographer or against it — hijack the photo. Because this is not the norm for most portraitists, my experience in looking at portraits is usually hit and miss.

In the case of Sherman, I can see — well, if not portraits, portrait-format images — without the need for that little internal flinch that most portraitists trigger in me some or all of the time. And that really is a relief — almost a tangible weight being lifted.