Unequally Yoked recently posted a well-phrased take on a theme relevant to my interests:
In C.S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds, most of the selections in the book are critical essays, but there a few pieces of fiction included, one of which is a never completed novel that C.S. Lewis meant to write about Menelaus and Helen during and after the Trojan War. In the excerpt below, Menelaus stops fantasizing about torturing Helen if he regains her.
[H]e wouldn’t torture her. He saw that was nonsense. Torture was all very well for getting information; it was no real use for revenge. All people under torture have the same face and make the same noise. You lose the person you hated.
I was struck by this passage, since frequently discussions of torture (fictional and nonfictional) treat it as revelatory. In Firefly‘s “War Stories” Shepherd Book quotes Shan Yu — a fictional warrior whose philosophy informs the actions of that episode’s antagonist.
[Shan Yu] fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. [He wrote] “Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”
The idea that we are most ourselves under stress is prevalent. Hurt someone badly enough, and every decent drapery will be stripped away, and you’ll meet the authentic self they tried to mask. See also “It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism” (from Good Omens) and the idea that wine and wrath lower inhibitions and reveal identity. All of this presupposes that anything we do by effort can’t be authentic, when I’d argue that our choice of mask and drapery is the best indication of our character.
When it comes to seeing someone, relating to someone, and in photography, when it comes to making a portrait, it’s more important to see and understand the masks they choose and how they use them than it is to try to separate them from those masks. This is why Dijkstra’s portraits are boring, but Meatyard’s Father Louie is fascinating.
The only rationale for trying to unmask a subject is an attempt at the universal — which generally and predictably results in a maximally banal depiction which, if it reveals anything, reveals the prejudices and assumptions of the artist. It also, I think, tends toward photograph as implicitly violent.
There’s something of a running joke that I only like portraits where you can’t see the subject’s face. Well, this post certainly won’t buck that trend.
Last month, Stan Banos at Reciprocity Failure posted effaced or redacted versions of three portraits that are part of a series which he was forced to abandon. I won’t go into the details — you should definitely click through and read his whole post. But I find myself drawn to the portraits themselves in the redacted form in which he posted them:
And so I’m left with seven orphaned portraits- The Magnificent Seven; three of which I present here in their ghostly apparitions. Although I took care to get signed releases from each subject, I have no idea what the legal implications to showing the actual images are, particularly since it can now be probably claimed that I took them without authority. As proud as I am of these images, they have been as effectively gutted of their context, as they have of their details in this presentation.
There’s not no information visible in them, although there is very little. The shape of the subject’s body, broad strokes of their wardrobe — and of course the posture, which is the only trait that is preserved more or less fully intact.
These are essential aspects of a person’s image, and they give the portraits, even in redacted form, a degree of personality. It might be a greater degree than is found in the most frequently seen photographs of people — advertising photographs and news photographs. These often reduce the complexity and idiosyncrasies of their subjects to archetypes — the building blocks of simple, powerful, salable stories.
In (what is left of) these portraits, the specific person is invisible, and only the shadow of a type is suggested. No story, just a question. Which is the perfect illustration of the post to which they are attached, of course. (You did read it, right?) And it’s probably why I find them so appealing.
In a sense, it’s a more extreme case of what attracts me to old albumen prints — I like that photographs with incomplete information seem to leave more to the viewer’s imagination, interpretation, and judgment.
Of course, this probably isn’t a principle that can be followed to its logical conclusion, or else my favorite photographs would be totally blank.
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.
Hi, folks. I’m interested in your thoughts on portraiture. Specifically, I’d like to know one example each of:
- A best/great/favorite portrait — something that you consider to be at the top of the genre
- A portrait that is highly regarded or popular, but that you dislike
If you can also say a little about why, that would be extra awesome. Can be an individual photograph or a series, but should be more specific than just naming a great portraitist.
Also, if there’s any favorite writing (blog post, book, whatever) about portraiture that you’d like to point me to, that would be great as well.
Thanks! You can respond via tumblr, Disqus, email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or whatever.
Obligatory tumblr question mark…now?
In my previous post on Meatyard, I mentioned that Meatyard was acquainted with Thomas Merton, and how flabbergasted I was by that — and that a book had been published with Meatyard’s photographs of Merton, along with their correspondence. Well, almost as soon as I found out about that book, Father Louie, I ordered a copy. (It’s well and thoroughly out of print, but used copies aren’t un-findable.)
The book contains a preface by Barry Magid, an essay on Meatyard and Merton (“Tom and Gene”) by Guy Davenport, two short pieces of writing by Meatyard — “Photographing Thomas Merton: A Reminiscence” and “A Eulogy of Thomas Merton,” correspondence between Meatyard and Merton, and a brief but nicely nitty-gritty note from Meatyard’s son Christopher about the negatives, the prints, and a bit about Meatyard’s gear and technique. And, of course, the photographs.
The photographs are a bit tricky to describe. It’s hard to judge their quality, in particular. They’re an inclusive group of photographs, minimally edited and chronologically sequenced. That doesn’t make them better or worse as individual photos, but because of the way they were assembled, they together make up more a useful historical resource than a significant photographic statement. Which isn’t a ding against them or against the book — although I guess it is a ding against history that Meatyard and Merton didn’t have the time for more of these photos. (The two met in 1967; Merton died in 1968.)
Portraiture and Identity
The photos are, on the surface, totally unlike Meatyard’s best-known work — the portraits of masked children, anonymous (or universalized), blatantly surreal and artificial. To a viewer without any context for them, the Merton photos might appear to be casual snapshots of family and friends — a picnic, a dinner party, and so on. Perhaps the work of a talented but careless amateur student photographer, prone to “accidents” like motion blur and odd exposures and awkward poses.
But we do have context — text that helps to clarify how the photographs relate to Meatyard’s intentions and oeuvre, and to Merton’s personality. Maybe the most useful aspect to this is understanding the meaning of portraiture — and how these portraits relate both to traditional ideas of portraiture and to Meatyard’s other work.
From Magid’s preface:
Thomas Merton became Father Louis to the brethren of Our Lady of Gethsemani.
To the world…he remained Thomas Merton, best-selling author and spiritual guide to his and our generation. But Merton was acutely aware of the danger of being trapped by these personae, and already in The Seven Storey Mountain he refers to that Thomas Merton as “my double, my shadow, my enemy”….
Gene Meatyard’s photographs, with their use of chance, motion, and multiple exposures, mirror the ever-changing, ephemeral nature of the self, which we normally fool ourselves into imagining as fixed and stable. When we open a book of photographic portraits, we are used to looking for how the photographer has captured the essence of his subject in a given image.
These pictures don’t do that.
Rather than gratify what Merton called “the hunger of having a clear satisfying idea of who he is and what he is and where he stands,” they subvert the whole notion of Essence, or of a Self to be captured. (pp. 9-10)
From Davenport’s essay:
Gene was interested in what happens to the rest of the body when the face is masked. A mask, like an expression, changes the way we see feet and hands, stance and personality. These photographs are both satiric and comic; their insight, however, is deep. We are all masked by convention and pretense. Merton would have said that we are masked by illusion. He was, as Gene perceived, a man of costumes (masks for the whole person). His proper costume was a Cistercian robe, in which he looked like a figure out of El Greco or Zurbaran. He liked wearing this in the wrong place, a picnic, for instance, of which Gene made a set of photographs. This was one of Gene’s favorite modes: the candid shot of families and groups, a use of the camera as old as photography, but in Gene’s masterly hands a psychological sketchbook, and a comedy of manners. (pp. 29-30)
Gene liked to say that he photographed essence, not fact. Gene read Zukofsky before he photographed him; Zukofsky’s layered text turns up as double exposures in the portraits, as oblique tilts of the head, as blurred outlines. The “innocent eye” of Monet and Wallace Stevens was not for Gene: he needed to know all he could about his subjects. He did not, for example, know enough about Parker Tyler, who sat for him, and came out as a complacent southern gentleman on a sofa, and the photograph is neither Parker Tyler nor a Meatyard.
The first thing we notice about Gene’s portraits of Tom is the wild diversity. Here’s Tom playing drums, and Tom the monk, and Tom the tobacco farmer, and Tom the poet (holding Jonathan Williams’s thyrsus). Many were taken when tom could not have been aware that he was being photographed. Many are posed in a collaboration between artist and subject.
Gene had agreed with me that Tom could look eerily like Jean Genet—John Jennet, as Gene pronounced the name, with typical Meatyardian intrepedity. This was within the psychological game of belying appearances, one of Gene’s games. For Tom resembled the French outlaw and prose stylist only when he was in his farmer’s clothes; that is, in a mask for the body. (p. 32)
From Christopher Meatyard’s notes:
Merton wore his monk’s habit, and provided Meatyard with his first and best opportunity to photograph him so attired. The black and white elements of the habit represent diverse aspects of the Trappist heritage. The white robe is a reminder of the twelve apostles and of the Trappists’ dedication to the Virgin, and is worn in choir. The black scapular dates back to the time of St. Benedict, the sixty century, when it functioned as an apron for those involved in manual labor. The hood of the scapular was seldom used except in processions. The contrast of black and white corresponds to Merton’s own personal combination of two branches of theological discourse: the apophatic, referring to the unknowability of God, and the cataphatic, referring to the theology of “light,” “good,” “life.” The wide leather belt “girds up the loins” and thus represents a profession even on top of another belt looped through jeans). A fishing cap bearing a pair of crossed swordfish as insignia tops of Merton’s habit. (p. 89)
You may note the contradiction between Magid and Davenport regarding “essence” — it is doubtless a contradiction with real metaphysical weight, and I think it does bear interestingly on the question of how “Zen” Meatyard was or wasn’t. But that’s of decidedly secondary concern; the point is that these photographs are light years away from the portrait as a portrayal of a unitary and fixed inner self inherent to the subject. They show the subject as fluid, as masked — but more than that, as deploying different masks at different times, managing a changeable identity.
This makes them both like and unlike Meatyard’s more familiar portraits — in which he provides his subjects with masks from his rather epic collection. Merton is differently (though not less) masked, but the masks are his own. The staging is similar — a mix of home ground and abandoned structures. The style is a mix — some are very similar to Meatyard’s other work, and some are different — more intimate, and with a greater sense of movement. (In the sense of natural gesture, rather than motion blur as a specific technique — although that is also very much in play.) Because of how Merton relates to costume and to identity, he feels like an equal player in the portrait game. I find this tremendously appealing — I prefer portraits where the subject isn’t totally at the descriptive mercy of the photographer.
Meatyard on Meatyard
When he brought his photographs over to show, always mounted, he was modestly silent. We did the talking, not he. He talked only about others’ photographs. (p. 35)
As to how Meatyard thought about his photography — and what he meant by it — the text is rather more oblique. Meatyard did not generally talk about his work, and what he did say could be obscure. For example, in his correspondence with Merton, Meatyard references a series of photographs he made in which a boy is photographed at different points along a wall, wearing different masks. (Some of these photos were at the de Young, referred to with series title “Along I Walk” — unfortunately, I did not take a picture of them, and I cannot find examples online.) Regarding this series, he composed a poem:
However, However; However -- How rove wearer, wherever lovers rave, the prover of history's hysterical plover.
Now, I haven’t the faintest clue what that means, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it. If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments.
Photographs in Context
Maybe the book’s greatest service is to provide context on individual photos — situating them in a time and a place, and relating them to meanings and intentions. This is especially valuable when it comes to Meatyard, because his photographs so often seem to emanate by chance from some charming yet monstrous alternate reality.
Meatyard made nine images of Merton’s profile as he read from the manuscript that would become Cables to the Ace (pages 2, 16-19). Each explored a different relationship between the silhouette and the outlining illumination. Meatyard modified Merton’s location by degrees to draw attention to the juxtaposition of the horizontal frame of the window and the vertical support post of the porch outside. He illustrated Merton’s apophatic speech by aligning one black arm of the momentary crucifix with the speaker’s ebullient tongue. (p. 87)
It was at this December meeting that Levertov and Merton discussed the merits of self-immolation as a way of protesting the war in Vietnam. It is tempting to see a visual commentary on this conversation in the triple exposure with the overlapping visages of Levertov, Merton, and Berry: almost everyone of its overlapping forms refers to fire. Levertov is seated in front of an active fireplace. The vivid wood grain of the cedar alter over the hearth opening recalls flames. Another image of the later is superimposed in that of the gas heater. The horizontal exhaust of the heater intersects with the later candle. The candle snuff reflects a flamelike light. A second image of the later candle hovers under a thermometer, which lends together with an alter icon. (p. 93)
Although some of the juiciest context is actually provided for a photograph which does not exist:
We retired to an unused farmhouse and farmyard were I proceeded to make some photographs of Tom and Guy. Backgrounds are important to my photographs and I used many around that farm for constructions and single and double portraits. There was one junction of a row of large leafed plants, a gate going to nowhere and a plowed field that looked interesting. I asked Tom to walk along next to the plants while I worked the camera. As he was walking he asked how far to go and I said for him to keep going. He did — and disappeared from view in the ground glass. I looked up and he was lying on his face in the field with his hat on his head. He was participating. None of us realized that there was a nine-inch drop-off from grass to field. We all laughed until we could laugh no longer — a pratfall is contagious in its humor. (p. 41)
Merton asked, “How far?” and Gene answered, “Keep going.” Merton’s stride found the vertical and he fell facedown, his robes billowing and flashing all of him there was to see to those assembled, including at least two women. I suppose my father intended for Merton to hop that step so that he could suspend him softly, airborne, and momentarily relate the monk to the ephemeral windswept wire with its solitary clothespin that reached toward him from the top of the inexplicable gatepost frame. (Wires, cables, and power lines were an important formal element in all the photographs made that day.) In the next frame Merton is seen marching back toward the camera, grinning broadly. Although one of Gene’s passions was recording the interstice of gesture — and he would not have let this moment pass — in this case the frame is blank for the fall itself, the record discrete. Gene dated the photograph “fall” even though the picnic took place in the early summer. (p. 86)
Miscellaneous Fun Facts
- Meatyard did not use contact sheets. (p. 5)
- He generally printed 1/3 of his negatives; with Merton, he printed 1/2 (p. 5)
- Most negatives he only printed once or twice (p. 5)
- Meatyard once identified a man immediately on sight based on a photograph of the subject at age ten (p. 25)
- “Gene had no studio, never directed his subjects, and usually looked away, as if uninterested, before he triggered the shutter.” (p. 33)
- Meatyard regarded color photography as “just some chemicals in the emulsion, nothing to do with photography.” (p. 35)
- In some of his photographs, he introduced motion blur by mounting the camera on a tripod, then kicking the tripod. (p. 35)
- “Meatyard, it should be noted, never took any family snapshots or made casual records after 1955.” (p. 92)
- “Gene was fascinated with his own name, Meatyard, and was delighted when I pointed out that it is the Middle English meteyeard, or yardstick, cognate with the name Dreyfus. And that his first name is properly pronounced “Rafe.” He approved of Edward Muggeridge’s changing his name to Eadward Muybridge.” (p. 28)
Untitled, ca. 1968, Ralph Eugene Meatyard (Please disregard my reflection in the glass.)
[Meatyard] is always seeing or catching a trace of the presence of something that I have missed, or he turns my vision against my reason, or he requires my belief to venture off in the direction of the incredible. Sooner or later he’s going to produce evidence that you are not where you think you are.
I went to see the Ralph Eugene Meatyard exhibit at the de Young on Saturday, and since then, I keep coming back to this quotation. Especially this last part, because my whole experience at that exhibit and in my follow-up googling has been that when it comes to Meatyard, I really was not where I thought I was, not at all.
Let’s start with the quotation itself, or more specifically its author, Wendell Berry — whose characteristic concerns are, I would have thought, part of a whole different universe than Meatyard’s. Apparently not; not only were they acquainted, but they actually collaborated on a book). Another of Meatyard’s friends was Thomas Merton — a book was published posthumously which collects Meatyard’s photographs of Merton and their correspondence. And again, I would never have thought to put Merton in the same world as Meatyard. I was aware that all three men lived in Kentucky, but in my mind, they might as well have been three entirely different Kentuckys.
I think the reason this came as such a surprise to me is that I had been reading Meatyard’s photographs as placeless. I was reading his use of masks as a sign of stylization and anonymization, which I associate with depersonalization and disconnection from a sense of place. That’s not exactly incorrect, but it is incomplete, and (in my case, demonstrably) misleading.
These photographs could have been made anywhere, but they weren’t; they were made in places local to Meatyard, frequently in his own literal backyard. Similarly, the people in his photographs could be anyone behind their masks, but they were not: they were his family and friends. There is intimacy and homeliness about the photographs that…well, I can’t say it should make these things obvious, because obvious truths aren’t really a possibility with this kind of work — but that intimacy and homeliness do comprise as great a part of these photographs as the in-your-face surrealism does.
Meatyard refers to his photographs as romantic, in the sense of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “romance” in The Devil’s Dictionary: “Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are.” The masked figures, the dolls, the mirrors, create scenes that seem to be at right angles to reality, a dreamlike exploration of intense opposites or quasi-opposites — “monstrousness and innocence, of violence and quiet, of pain and comedy, terror and joy, alienation and redemption, of decay and utility.” (James Baker Hall)
But there is also a strange sincere literalism to them. They subvert (or elevate?) the genre of family photography — but they are also actually Meatyard’s family photographs. He bought his first camera so that he could take baby photos; he was a camera club photographer with a 9 to 5 job (as an optician, no less, his job to enable clear seeing), who spent his weekends photographing his kids. Those photographs also happen to be surreal dreamscapes full of psychological archetypes and literary allusion. And when you view them, you tend to find that you are not where you think you are.
It can also be hard to decide where you think Meatyard is. For example, SFMOMA refers to him as an “outsider,” which is something I have not been quite able to get my head around. Perhaps this is because I have an inadequate understanding of what that term means in the art world — because Meatyard does not seem to me to be “outside” either the community of recognized photographers or outside of society. In the 50’s and 60’s, photography did not have a normalized place within the academic art world, and photography has always been the province of passionate amateurs as much as of those whose livelihood derived from their photography. Meatyard was not out of communication with other photographers, including established artistic and intellectual leaders in the medium. He was exhibited. He probably was not as well-recognized as he should have been, but that doesn’t make someone an outsider. He has (and uses) the power to make the viewer uncomfortable, and he doubtless frustrates some who are responsible for classifying and categorizing works of art, but again, that does not put him “outside” of anything — does it?
I wonder if, had his photographs not been full of masks and dolls, or if he had been just slightly less known in his lifetime, modern curators might be tempted to try to manhandle him into the clumsy, lumpy category of “vernacular” photography, which is where photographs are sent that have interest or value, but which are for whatever reason determined to be inadequately credentialed to be shown apart from the patronage of some qualified interpreter.
PS: I chose the photograph at the top of this post because it was my favorite of the group — because of the juxtaposition of the masked girl seated at the piano, performing, and the girl who is reclining on the bench, having set her mask aside. I was interested to note that when I did a search for other Meatyard photographs online, I was unable to find this particular photograph, but I was able to find another that was probably made in the same sitting, in which both girls are masked, and the left-hand sitter’s posture is different — rigid, attentive. I do not know whether Meatyard intended to make one version and the other was done spur-of-the moment, or whether both were planned from the beginning. I would very much like to know whether Meatyard considered one more canonical…
The above link seems to have succumbed to link rot. I have it in my Pinboard archives, but I can’t link directly to it there, so here’s a screenshot:
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force.”
It’s an essay on the role of force (i.e., coercive violence) in the Iliad — but Weil wrote it in 1939, so she wasn’t just writing about the Iliad. In the essay, she describes the centrality of coercion (in the form of violence, destruction, and enslavement) both to that story and to a recurring historical predicament of human beings in time of war: that the dead and the subjugated exist as things, deprived of the status and condition of human persons.
To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.
From the power to transform him into a thing by killing him there proceeds another power, and much more prodigious, that which makes a thing of him while he still lives. He is living, he has a soul, yet he is a thing.
These passages are often on my mind, because I think they have a lot of relevance for contemporary culture, both literally and figuratively. I think they are disturbingly relevant to reality television, for example. (Reality television is a forum for people who wish to reduce themselves to things as a spectacle for the audience.)
But what I’ve been thinking about lately is the relevance of Weil’s observations to photography in particular — and more specifically, to portraiture, which is the genre of photography most intimately connected to the human person. I wonder: is the portraitist’s camera a case of an “x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”?
Of course, literally speaking, that is the camera’s very purpose. You point the device at a person, activate it, and receive a thing (the photograph) in return. But does that process, the technical ritual of camera operation, doom the portrait to acting as an objectifying force, each release of the shutter a minor recapitulation of violence? Does it always and necessarily do so, or only sometimes? And can it serve an opposite function?
I don’t have a systematic answer to these questions, but a few examples have occurred to me. I’m not presenting these as a typology, or even a part of one, just engaging in a little free association:
Gardner’s “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” is a photograph of a corpse, of a person who has been made into a thing. So, war had already done as much to him as it could, hadn’t it? Or perhaps it had not. The photograph is now generally understood to have been staged — a common practice at the time. If a scene was not sufficiently dramatic, did not tell enough of a story, did not tell the right story, then the scene, including the corpse, could be adjusted as necessary. (Of course, this sort of technique was more often applied to the bodies of those on the other side of a given conflict than to those on ones own.)
The corpse is simply a prop — a significant prop, perhaps, but one as malleable and manipulable as any other. In other words, this is a photograph which not only records the result of violence as content, but which is made in a fashion predicated upon violence and benefiting from it. (Which is so even if the photograph also has the intended or unintended result of eliciting sympathy for the dead.) While the practice of moving bodies around is no longer so prominent in the war photographer’s toolkit, I do not think you would have to look far to find related strategies in use throughout the history of photojournalism, up to today.
In some cases, the process of making or displaying a photograph can in itself be intrinsically and literally harmful or detrimental. An obvious, perfect case would be Marc Garanger’s “Femme Algerienne” photographs — ID photographs made during the Algerian War, for which women were forced to sit with their faces uncovered.
In this case, the camera is being employed as a tool of war, and photography is an application of force against a people, as well as a process producing documents that are records and emblems of subjugation.
These same photographs have acquired new meanings and uses since then, being pressed into service as documentation of the brutality of the regime which required them to be made. They are also displayed as fine art, which I find more than a little creepy, because both their intellectual significance and their very real beauty are still owed directly to the violation that created them.
I’m not sure whether Tyler Shields’s “Bruised Barbie” photographs of Heather Morris are only superficially relevant to this post, or whether they are hyper-relevant to it. No one was harmed in their creation, and they have no direct connection to any specific violent event or deed. But still, there is something about them which prevents me from partitioning them off in the way I might other works of entertainment or art which happened to include some fictionalization of violence.
They depict a woman taking on the role of a plastic doll (i.e., turning herself into a thing), while also depicting a weirdly light, playful, inconsequential idea of violence and subjugation.
Whether that depiction is in itself actually harmful is an interesting question. The kneejerk, commonsense reaction to these photos is that they glamorize domestic violence. I don’t really get that, because I don’t see any actual glamor in the photographs.
But as portraits — as photographs of a person — I find them baffling and off-putting. They are technically photographs of a person, but what I see in them is not a person — not even a person pretending to be a plastic toy. What I see in them is, “nobody is here at all.”
Fazal Sheikh’s portraiture is also hyper-relevant to this post, although in a different way. It seems to be more or less a direct response to the sort of effects of violence that Weil describes. Eduardo Cadava’s essay on Sheikh explains it this way:
In presenting us the traces of violence, deprivation, oppression, and effacement in relation to which his subjects exist — in relation to which they live and die, and even live as if they already were dead — Sheikh’s photographs seek to bestow a kind of life and dignity on these men, women, and children, to attest to the necessity and responsibility of producing photographs that might facilitate this life and dignity, that may even speak and be heard. (p. 9)
In describing this (possible) function of photography, Cadava emphasizes the importance of context — of the way the portrait, and especially the photographic series, can document and/or connote relationship between the subject and their environment.
Each portrait, in other words, opens onto a world: it tells us that, if we wish to see this or that refugee, to understand his or her plight, we can only begin to “see” him or her by understanding his or her relation to an entire network of intensely mediated relations. We could even say that photography names the process whereby something stops being what it “is” in order to transform itself into “something else.” This transformation therefore implies a kind of death — since what existed before the transformation is no longer present — and it is no accident that Sheikh intersperses, among his images of Somali refugees, a series of photographs of graves…each of which could be said to be a “portrait,” but a portrait that tells us what is true of all portraits: a portrait is always less “the immortalization of a person than the presentation of (immortal) death in (a) person.” (pp. 20-21)
I find this interesting because it returns me to another passage in Weil’s essay:
But for those upon whom it has fallen, so brutal a destiny wipes out damnations, revolts, comparisons, meditations upon the future and the past, almost memory itself. It does not belong to the slave to be faithful to his city or to his dead.
Weil identifies this decontextualizing capacity of violence as central to the experience of the subjugated victim. The dead are not only taken away, but in a sense erased. And while a photographic record has no power to resuscitate the dead, perhaps it has (or may have) the power to frustrate this kind of erasure.
In other words, the photograph cannot remove or reverse death, it cannot add life — but it can act as a sort of “death plus,” contributing an additional virtual death that happens to confer a kind of immortality. Cadava indicates that this function is connected to the subject’s community — so perhaps the measure of the worth of a photograph in relation to violence is the extent to which it enables the viewer to place the results/evidence of that violence into context, to perceive it as it relates the subject to other people and to the subject’s past and place.
Of course, enabling the viewer to relate to the subject historically and in context does not necessarily differentiate Sheikh’s portraits from Gardner’s rebel sharpshooter. After all, what we may believe Sheikh achieves in enabling subjects to “speak and be heard,” cannot always be differentiated from what enables another sort of photographer to use the subject to lie.
From Being Gay in Uganda, by Tadej Žnidarčič. Via Daylight Magazine.
Before you read our post, I recommend reading the interview at Daylight — it is informative, insightful, and direct. Discussions of work like this often get bogged down either in heavy theory or in a whole-hearted devotion to the documentary value that takes the nature of the photographs and the choices that shaped them as a given; neither is the case here.
In Being Gay in Uganda, Žnidarčič photographs gays and lesbians in Uganda. All of the photographs are posed in the same way, with the subjects facing away from the camera and toward walls, visible from around mid-thigh or knee up.
The photographer explains the choice of posing:
All the people I talked to wanted to remain anonymous so I portrayed them without compromising their safety. I didn’t want to ‘reduce’ them to only their feet, hands or clothing, or hide their faces in one way or another. In this case, I think showing only their hands or clothing wouldn’t say much about them and the situation they face every day. Since we see the ‘complete’ person, but the person is not facing us, the question arises: why can’t they show their face? Why can’t they face us? That’s what I would like people to think about when they see these images.
Another element is that they stand in front of ugly, crumbling walls. These walls symbolize the obstacles they face and their exclusion from society. That, and since the bill proposes the death penalty for homosexuals, a wall is something people get executed in front of. As a series, the portraits work as a group—unified by exact framing—in which each person is an individual, with his or her own posture, clothing, and accessories.
It is an interesting set of choices, addressing the strictly practical need to preserve subjects’ safety, the portraitist’s need to depict whole persons, rather than just parts that elude to a person, and also a symbolic function that the casual viewer might miss: the background as place of execution. (I confess, I did not initially make this connection when viewing the images.)
There are other consequences for these choices, which may or may not also be intended. The posing and framing are profoundly isolating, for example; the subject is cut off from the viewer by the pose and from the context by the framing. This is consistent with what the photographer is trying to communicate about the place of the homosexual in Uganda, but it does not hint at personal bonds, social networks, and organizations within the gay community (which exist and are referenced repeatedly in the interview); each subject stands alone.
I think this approach encourages a more typological and less personal viewing. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but I wonder if the choice to represent one person against each wall, rather than two or several, was conscious and what governed it.
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.)