Assignment 3: self-portrait

Brief

Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit. You may choose to explore your identity or masquerade as someone else, or use empty locations or objects to speak of your experiences. However you choose to approach it, use yourself – directly or indirectly – as subject matter.

Research

In addition to looking into the photographers mentioned in the course notes plus others listed in my diary, I also consulted Susan Bright’s 2010 book Auto Focus.

Concept Development & Process

My diary for this assignment can be found here. After some time, I came up with the idea of a “non portrait”. This was partly in response to me not liking very much photos of myself and partly out of frustration about the lack of progress in this assignment. I had in mind a distorted image, showing motion. I made approximately 60 shots (see Contact Sheets) with a plain black background showing differing degrees of movement, head angle and expressions. My “picks” (shortlist) are indicated on the contact sheets. After reviewing several times the  picks, I came down to one image – #44 – which illustrated my desire not to have a portrait. I cropped to square format because I wanted to focus on the subject (recognising the irony here) and converted to monochrome because I wanted a stripped-to-the-essence look and felt that colour didn’t add anything and if anything, confused the message. While taking the photos, a working title popped to mind: “Not a Portrait”. I decided to hand-write this at the bottom of the image because I was interested in experimenting with text as mentioned in my diary.  I feel this works as relay text because plainly it’s in contrast to the image content and the two bounce off each other. I like the kind of tension and mystery it creates.

Final Section

Contact Sheets

Following are my contact sheets with an indication of my “picks”.

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques used, the process was fairly simple and no great challenge. I believe that I have achieved a simple, but effective design which focuses on the subject and conveys my intention.

2. Quality of outcome

In this assignment, I have managed to produce a powerful self-portrait which synthesises much of what I learned during this section of the course. I was particularly pleased to be able to try out the use of text in almost a “protest” mode. I believe my desire not to have a straight portrait comes through strongly.

3. Demonstration of creativity

I have tried to use a creative approach to the brief, revealing, but at the some time not revealing and also introducing tension via text.

4. Context

My research into the self-portrait shows that there are many, many ways to approach the genre with some being particularly challenging (see Bright, 2010). After looking at a great deal of the work of other photographers, including other students, I believe my end result meets the brief, but appreciate that with creativity comes risk.

References

Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)

Advertisements

Assignment 3: diary

11 Nov 2017

My first thought when starting this diary was a practical one: what format should I use? I like the look of handwriting, although my own is pretty appalling and has been going downhill for years. On the other hand, I knew that I’d want something that was with me all the time so I could put down thoughts at any time. That more-or-less ruled out a paper diary for me.

So, I’m using Evernote – my old fallback for the ultimate, portable note system. The Mac version doesn’t support diagrams very well (maybe not at all), so maybe I’ve finally found the use case for getting myself an iPad 😃

Anyway, to press on: today I finally submitted assignment 2 with a strong feeling of relief. I’ve also been reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned from the assignment in terms of overcoming blocks, generating ideas and not getting stuck – an ever-present trap for me. Image 028 resonates most strongly with me about barriers existing only in my mind and if I could just metaphorically step back, I’d see the barrier for what it is and be able to move on. Easier said than done, I think, but the idea stays with me.

Another reflection point is about about looking and seeing. When I knew what I was looking for, potential subjects were everywhere. It’s about having a strong idea and focusing on it – not to the exclusion of all else, of course, but as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do (Lewis Carroll, I think).

So, onto part 3 and the start of this diary.

12 Nov

So, this assignment is about a self-portrait. That doesn’t fill me with joy at all. I’m much more at home behind the camera, as are I suspect most of my fellow students.

A rainy Sunday. A morning spent doing practical things like the shopping for the week and a luxurious afternoon spent on Part 3 – working through some exercises, doing lots of web searches. After a long dry period, it’s actually a nice feeling to get back to reading and thinking about photography. Also spent some time catching up on C&N email. One student posted his frustration with the subject – something that I can sympathise with, so I wrote back and said so. It’s not easy to pull yourself up by your bootstraps (do boots have straps anymore?) and get moving again after a setback. Some students call it “losing your mojo”. Well, it’s a scary thing. I’m just lucky that I don’t depend on my photography mojo to earn my keep, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble.

At the beginning of Part 3, there is a series titled Iron Man by Keith Greenough

There’s no complex symbolism here, it’s Keith showing a certain aspect of himself – that (presumably) he likes the iron man sporting event. Of course, without knowing more we have no clue whether this is true or not. Maybe he’s just dressing up? Still, it made me think about my own interests and how I could use them as a series of portraits.

Ran into a bit of a tar pit over the exercise titled “childhood memories”. I have strong ones of my passion for tennis during those years – I was a real tennis nut – but not sure how to depict it to answer the exercise. I simply don’t have a photo of those days and anyway, the exercise is about depicting a memory, not doctoring a photo. Have to think some more … photos of my tennis racket and a few balls seem banal beyond belief. To include me as an adult, well, not sure what to say about that – how boring. To try and pass myself off à la Trish Morrissey – well, I don’t have the clothes nor the long hair, unfortunately. Maybe something will inspire me. If nothing else, I have a whole new respect for Morrissey and her series Seven Years.

 

18 Nov

Last night was the end of year dinner for the motorcycle club of which I am a member. A great party, with great people. We left at about 1:30am – not the first to leave, but definitely not the last as well. Great memories.

Started to think about how the club and riding is an important part of my life. Living here in Switzerland is living in motorcycling  (and cycling) heaven, but what makes it great are the people in the club – the friendliness, the laughs, the sense of belonging.

Been thinking again about my interests and what they say about me and the approach taken by Keith Greenough. I recognise a link back to assignment 1 where I tried to portray multiple sides of myself, but it didn’t meet the brief.

19 Nov

One thing I’ve learned is that I struggle to keep a daily diary going. Not much thinking about photography this week – more just a case of work, work, work. Thinking more about retirement than anything else. Recognise that it’s escapism as much as anything else: wanting to live in a warm climate, close to the sea.

21 Nov

After the disaster of assignment 1, I’m feeling a bit tentative to say the least about assignment 3. The moto club might be an interesting angle since it’s definitely an important part of my life. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 17, so it’s not exactly a passing fad, but how would I represent it? I really don’t feel enthusiastic about having me in-shot, so what could I take from people like Nigel Shafran? Especially now, in the off season when nothing much is happening … not sure about this one at all.  Also: it’s part of me, but only a part, as it can ever be of a person. What about my other interests?

22 Nov

Looking for inspiration, I started taking a look at the blogs of my fellow students and came across Lynda’s Kuit’s blog whom I know in some sense because she is active on email and on the OCA forum.

Her approach to the assignment was interesting because it dealt with the feelings of being a migrant and about what “home” means. It’s relevant to me because I’m an étranger, living in Switzerland. I’ve been here for over 11 years, and there’s a sense of familiarity but every so often I’m reminded that I don’t come from here. I don’t share the same cultural background, I don’t have the command of the language that others have and this sets me apart. Mostly it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes it does …  It’s good food for thought.

23 Nov

Been thinking some more about the idea of living in a place where I don’t come from. The title of the Robert Heinlein book “Stranger in a Strange Land” came to mind. Also thinking about Dewald Botha’s series titled Ring Road which we met in part 2. I don’t pretend that the dislocation I sometimes feel is remotely comparable to living in China, but there is an element of similarity nevertheless, just to a lesser degree. I think there maybe something in there in the aspect of similar, but different – seemingly the same, but not in reality.

25 Nov

Started doing some research into photographers who have looked into this idea of “displacement” or of not fitting in. Having only limited success so far since I have found mainly work on migration related to places like Syria. I’m looking for something far more subtle – perhaps this is where the idea of ambiguity can be used as suggested by my tutor in my assignment 2 feedback. Not making much progress on this.

11 Jan 2018

My first entry for the new year!  And a long gap since my last diary entry. Not quite sure what happened, but have a suspicion that it’s called “life”. Was looking again at part 3 and the photographers mentioned in the section and about how they put themselves directly or indirectly into the picture. This led to thinking about how we depict ourselves to others through that most common method: the “selfie”. Despite detesting the term, it gave me the idea to look at the 1000 or so photos currently on my iPhone and see how many were selfies and how I’d depicted myself to others over time.

16 Jan 2018

Last idea shot down by my tutor. The directive is to keep a diary for 2 weeks and magically something will appear. It’s like saying that there’s only one road to creativity. Safe to say, this subject is pissing me off.

Maybe “a day in the life”?  How boring.

Been thinking about Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up.  It occurred to me that I could build on this by taking an automated photo at exactly the same time over a number of days. What’s there, is there. Nothing contrived. This seems to me to be kind of interesting as it would be an intimate portrait of an aspect of my life. Certainly, it would be mainly in the self-absented genre, but it would depend on what was happening. If I happened to be in the area, so be it. It would kind of cross over into a candid camera domain. Food for thought.

17 Jan 2018

Been looking through Susan Bright’s book “Auto Focus”. To say that it’s an odd collection would be an understatement. Some of the people mentioned in the course notes are included, but there are many additional ones. It struck me, at least on the surface, how many people want to be someone else, or at least, want to pretend to be someone else for a while. I wonder what that says about their self image? Thinking back, it seems like no-one in Bright’s book feels “well in their skin” or why would they go to such effort to appear to be someone else? It reminds me of a OCA forum discussion about the fine line between self-portraiture and narcissism. It seems to me that, for many (most?) of the photographers in Bright’s look, that line has been left a long way behind.

I’ve been thinking that I’d really like to try adding text to my images. I have in mind the approach taken by Sophie Calle and Karen Knorr. Having seen some of Knorr’s images at Paris Photo 2016, I know first-hand the power that text adds, especially when it works more as relay than as anchor text.

As an experiment, and following the approach of Washing Up, I setup my camera on a programmable timer to fire off at 1pm every day for 2 weeks. Results below. Have come to the conclusion that this doesn’t do it for me. While it may be part of the genre, I think it can be weak and says nothing.

18 Jan 2018

I’m starting to think that most of the self-portraits I have seen are pretty ho-hum. Liz Wells in her book Photography: A Critical Introduction, quotes the work of Ori Schwarz who examined the use of the modern digital ‘selfie’. Schwarz sees the ‘selfie’ as currency in fragile social interactions, a means of overcoming the absence of any other kind of social or cultural capital. Participants are subject to public scrutiny and possibly stigmatisation instead of celebrity — as Schwarz puts it ‘extracting value from your body is a risky game’.  I can’t help but think of the links between Schwarz’s comment and much photographic self-portraiture.

25 Jan 2018

Resolved that I will try to represent my interests in a similar way to Penn: motorcycling, cycling, cigars, wine, cross-country skiing, …  Maybe I could add text as well as an experiment?

28 Jan 2018

Thinking some more about this … what if I tried a montage of all these things? One option would be to take a single shot with everything, or another would be to overlay the images in PhotoShop. Rather than a strict “Irving Penn” approach, the message would be “I am all these things at the same time, and more …”. That seems somehow more interesting than a number of one-interest-at-a-time mug shots. Food for thought.

18 Feb 2018

Over the last week, this assignment has been weighing heavily. The idea came to mind of a “non portrait”. I had in mind an image containing movement, almost negating the idea of a portrait having at least a passing similarity. Today, I resolved to give it a try.

 

 

Julie Blackmon

I noticed Julie Blackmon’s work at The Beauty of the Line exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland (my blog article about the exhibition is here).

According to her Wikipedia entry: Blackmon was born in 1966 in Missouri and her “photographs are inspired by her experience of growing up in a large family, her current role as both mother and photographer, and the timelessness of family dynamics. As the oldest of nine children and mother to three, Blackmon uses her own family members and household to “move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives”.

Julie Blackmon: Trapped, from Homegrown

Her images are fascinating, full of people and things in odd situations and bursting at the seams with narrative. The example above titled Trapped from the Homegrown series is a case in point. Our eyes are initially drawn to the cat in the middle of the frame and in a light area. The cat somehow looks a little annoyed. As our eyes move around the frame we quickly come across the round windows with contain the letters K C U F from left to right, but with each letter reversed as if written on the outside of what is clearly a garage. As we look further, we see a couple of skateboards and other things which we might think of as typical garage stuff and then we spot the piece of cardboard with the word “RESIST” written in red.

Clearly carefully staged, these images are no accident. I can image a Gregory Crewdson level of planning being required to ensure that everything is just right: the lighting, the arrangement of furniture and people, even pets on occasion. The more we look, the more we see and the overall impression is strongly of a story in motion, but the story itself remains out of reach. Truly worth a long look.

References

http://www.julieblackmon.com

The Beauty of Lines

Laurent Elie Badessi: Man’s Back, Horse’s Back, Camargue, France, 1994

Subtitled Masterpieces from the Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla collection, this exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne presents a quite amazing history of photography. Names include Bérénice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Robert Adams, Walker Evans, Vik Muniz, Man Ray and Lee Friedlander, however contemporary artists such as Alec Soth are also represented.

 

The theme is simple in concept, but intriguing and well organised: the beauty of the line, in all its forms. The Musée’s website provides the following introduction:

“Throughout history, photographers have always oscillated between two extremes: the mimetic illusion of reality and the enhancement of the esthetic qualities of the image. Whether it be ‘instantaneous lines’, according to the expression of Henri Cartier-Bresson, rational lines inspired from New Topographics, or the diversity of the curved lines of the human body, the line structures and sometimes reinvents the real – to the point of abstraction”.

Straight Line …

Berenice Abbott: View of Exchange Place from Broadway, 1933

The first section which the visitor comes across is titled the Straight Line. At first thought, this seems logical enough, but then it occurs that straight lines don’t occur in nature – they are the mark of the human being and his/her impact on the world. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to this section of the exhibition:

“Perfectly vertical and parallel lines draw the attention of many photographers whose aim is to document reality … In the 1930s, it enabled Margaret Bourke-White to glorify the technological feat that a bridge represents; in 2004, Edward Burtynsky used it from a much more critical perspective in exploring the contemporary exploitation of territories”.

In this section, straight lines predominate with architecture of one sort or another being the main theme. People are occasionally present, but usually as supporting characters or even being incidental. The book (Musée de l’Elysée, 2018) which accompanies the exhibition quotes from Olivier Lugnon (2001) that “the perception of of an absolutely straight, frontal line is characteristic of the ‘documentary style’ that some photographers adopted to give a neutral, objective look the the image, while concealing the artificiality and subjectivity that this structure necessarily imposes”.

 

While it’s plain that straight lines play a part, it’s also clear that things are rarely “pure” – that reality is messy and even imposing.  The book states that “whether straight or curved, lines make up only a fraction of a photograph’s formal spectrum, in which framing, point of view, light and shadow play a no-less-important role”.

As an example, the image by Burtynsky is approximately 2m high by 1.5m wide and is placed in a central place in one of the smaller rooms but which is visible from the main exhibition room. This allows the image to be seen from quite a distance. Seen from afar, the image with its repeating lines feels strongly like a tunnel and is very eye-catching. The lines of the bamboo scaffolding are visible, however due to the strong contrast between the subject and the sky the dominant effect is produced by the strong converging lines of the tops of the buildings suggesting almost a cathedral.

Likewise, at first glance the image by Robert Adams looks like an interplay of lines and strong shadow-shapes, but there is a strongly lit, curved path which leads us to the door which is in shadow. Lastly, there is the crucial shadow figure placed vertically half-way and horizontally just to the left of centre. The overall effect is of straight documentary, however the human element is vital and could almost be seen as a portrait of suburban (wo)man.

… and straight Lines

The second section could instead be titled “not so straight lines”. At this point, nature and real life starts to play a more important role. The introduction to this section states “photographers who have sought to capture instantaneous moments of life have not necessarily submitted to the discipline of such perfectly straight, parallel lines … the composition is no less studied and mannered, but the line’s rectitude softens. In the works of Lisette Model, Larry Clark, Nan Golden and Henri Cartier-Bresson, vertical lines structure the composition without necessarily being centered or parallel with the frame”.

In the image from Julie Blackmon there is an interesting interplay between the straight lines of what appears to be a grand house suggesting formalism and structure contrasted with the detritus of three children, one of whom looks out of the frame at who knows what. There is humour here – the little boy has his fingers in his ears while his sister plays the violin. The smaller sister looks on, in the background, with an anxious expression on her face. The image nicely blends straight lines with the not-so-straight approach demanded by small children.

The simply beautiful1 image from Michael Kenna shows a sharply focused delicate frond in the foreground with soft branches or tree trunks in the background. A classic, almost meditative image from a master which demonstrates the almost-but-not-quite straight lines of nature.

Abstractions

This section contains work which relates to the two previous sections, but with clearly a more abstract approach which makes us question what we are looking at. The introduction points out that “some artists have deliberately sought to mask reality, so as to emphasise the visual power of the image. Aaaron Siskind, Alison Rossiter, Ray K. Metzker and Harry Callahan each found a way of photographing the world while showing us only abstract lines”.

Alec Soth: Colombia. Bogota. 2003.

The image by Alex Soth presents a white wall, at a slight angle, positioned in the middle of the frame. The wall is topped with embedded shards of glass, making a very difficult barrier to climb. What is impossible to tell is whether we, the viewers, are looking out or looking in.  Are we enclosed or is the wall keeping us out? The wall implies not only a physical barrier, but at the same time a duality of meaning.

Curves

Without doubt, the section on curves is the largest, taking up the entire top floor of an already large exhibition.

The introduction to this section of the exhibition states that “in the 1920s … freeing themselves from the painting-imitations that the pictorialists had been producing, they [i.e. photographers of the time] attempted to prove that it could be a fully-fledged art form. In front of their lenses, the curves offered by nature by flowers and the human body became a means of demonstrating that photography was very much equal [to] drawing”.

Conclusions

I’m not completely positive that the “lines” theme worked – it seemed a little forced at times. What can’t be denied is that this selection from the Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla collection presents us with sublime pieces by masters from the early years of photography to recent times. The use of lines, to some degree or another, is an inescapable part of photography, but the exhibition does well to highlight these boundaries that we otherwise might take for granted.

The Beauty of Lines continues at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland until May 6 2018.

References

Lugnon, Olivier (2001) Le Style Documentaire. D’August Sander à Walker Evens, 1920-1945. Macula:Paris

Musée de l’Elysée (2018). The Beauty of Lines: The Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Collection. Scheidegger & Spiess: Lausanne

Notes

  1. Sincere apologies to those to whom the ‘B’ word gives offense. I promise to keep it to an absolute minimum from now on.

Semiotics

Introduction

Semiotics is an entirely new concept for me, struck for the first time in Context & Narrative. In an effort to provide some clarity to myself about the topic, I decided to do some research and collect some key information about semiotics and especially as it applies to photography.

Signs and so on …

The starting point of semiotics is the sign.  Wells (2015) provides an introduction:

“The science of signs, first proposed in 1916 by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, but developed in particular in the work of Roland Barthes (France) and C.S. Peirce (USA). Semiotics – also referred to as semiology – is premised upon the contention that all human communication is founded in an assemblage of signs – verbal, aural and visual – which is essentially systematic.”

Clearly, this concept of sign is central – it is the basis for all of our communications and therefore might be said to be a fundamental part of how we live with other people.

Wells goes on to say that “the sign proper has two aspects, signifier and signified. The signifier is the material manifestation, the word, or pictorial elements. The signified is a mental concept that is conventionally associated with the specific signifier. While separable for analytic purposes, in practice the signifier and the signified always go together.”

Short (2011:121) explains the term signifier as being “the form that the sign takes” and the signified as “the concept it represents”. Grundberg (1990) gives the example of the dots and dashes of Morse code being signifiers while the letters of the alphabet are the signified.

Salkeld (2017)  states that “a sign comprises two elements: the signifier – its physical form, such as a word (spoken or written), an image, a gesture, or an object; and the signified – the mental concept triggered by the signifier”. He goes onto give the example of the letters D – O – G as being signifiers which trigger the mental image of a dog. Of course, this isn’t universal – it plainly only works for people who understand enough English to make the mental connection. Salkeld calls this an “arbitrary signifier” – there is no specific connection between the letters “dog” and the mental concept – it is learned – and this is a characteristic of most spoken and written languages.

Salkeld (2017) adds another layer with the term ‘referent’ – “the thing that the sign as a whole stands for, but which is not physically present”. I understand this to mean that we have a chain of reasoning from the signifiers (D – O – G in the previous example) to the signified (our mental understanding that the letters “mean” a dog) to the referent (an actual dog).

Separating the ideas of the signified from the referent wasn’t so simple for me. My interpretation settled on the following:

  • Signifier: the (possibly arbitrary) collection of letters, sounds, gestures, images
  • Signified: the mental image prompted by the signifier
  • Reference: the actual object or person in the real world

From this point of view, I can make the example of a photograph of a friend. The signifier (the image), prompts the mental image of my friend (the signified). I therefore recognise the sign as indicating my friend. However, this is separate from the real person (the referent). There is therefore a clear separation from the image and the referent, the instant after the image is formed.

Symbols and Icons

Short (2011:123) provides some further terminology which is essential to semiotics: symbols and icons. She defines a symbol as “something that represents something else. In this instance, the signifier does not resemble the signified”. The important point is that the relationship must be learned and is therefore culturally specific. Examples include: languages, numbers, traffic lights and flags.

La Grange (2005) explains that “the symbol is essentially the same as de Saussure’s signifier in that their relationship to the subject is arbitrary and they need to be interpreted”. Grunberg (1990) points out that “the signifier is wholly arbitrary, a convention of social practice rather than a universal law”.

Short then goes on to explain that icons are different. “In this case the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified: bring similar in possessing some of its qualities”. Examples include a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model, metaphors, sound effects and imitate gestures.

Indexicality of Photos

A particular type of signifier is the indexical signifier or just index which “is physically or causally linked to the signified. This link can be observed or inferred.” (Short 2011:123). Examples include smoke (indicating fire or heat), thunder (indicating lightning) and footprints (indicating footsteps).

Short goes not to state that indexicality “is particularly pertinent to photography simply because a photograph is a literal ‘trace’ of its original subject”. This “trace”, no matter how distorted or realistic then becomes separated in some sense from the referent, the actual subject, due to the image being frozen in time.

References

Grundberg, Andy (1990) The Crisis of the Real. New York: Aperture

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Salkeld, Richard (2017) Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images.  [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 31 Jan 2018)

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23.09.15)

 

David Bate: Looking at Portraits

Via Chas Bedford’s C&N blog (see here), I tripped over a reference to David Bate’s 2009 book titled Photography: The Key Concepts. There is a chapter titled Looking at Portraits which is particularly relevant for C&N Assignment 3. What follows is part summary, part reflection on the contents of the chapter.

Identity

The first section discusses the idea of identity and Bate makes the point that “portraits fix our identity in what is essentially an art of description”. Although there are myriad uses for portraits, put quite simply, the portrait says “this is how you look”. He notes that “the early commercial industry of photography was dominated by the development of studio portraiture” because people wanted “likenesses”. The demand was immense and focused strongly on the fixed studio where “clients [could] see themselves in a picture as they wished to appear”.

After discussing different types of portraiture, Bart ends the first section of the chapter by stating:

“What all portraits have in common, in their overlapping and different ways, is the central issue that the portrait is a means employed to establish the identity of a sitter, regardless of whether they are viewed as a social problem or a human being with positive features”.

Elements of a Portrait

Bart puts forward the notion that almost all portraits are made up of four key elements: face, pose, clothing, location. He notes that different types of portraiture use these components in different ways – for example, the face might be emphasised and the other three reduced in importance or be practically non-existant. He states that “in effect, the use of the four elements (face, pose, clothing, location) and their combined relation in the picture are what organizes the rhetoric of a portrait”.

These four elements form a useful language for thinking about portraits. But what do they say about self-absented portraits such as Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up? It seems to me that they’re not so useful in such an extreme example where only location plays a role.

Bate argues that we “read” all of these elements. That is, we observe, interpret and take meaning from them. For example, he states that “just as the expression on a face is the rhetoric of mood, so the pose contributes to the signification of character, attitude and social position”.

Ad for Kodak Brownie – Eastman Kodak Company

In the section discussing pose, Bart makes the observation that passport photos and police mug shots have a similar aim: to be as objective as possible. The flat lighting and lack of a smile are meant to reduce subjective differences and any empathic identification with the subjects. He goes on to suggest that “the ‘smile’ (a rarity in the history of painting) emerged in photography as a popular convention precisely to signify the willing – ‘happy’ – participation of the sitter ‘to-be-photographed'”.

This is an interesting observation, but I do wonder at what influence marketing has had towards making the smile almost ubiquitous.  When I think about the early advertisements for cameras which came from Kodak which stressed the happy, fun aspects of photography. These early ads typically contained a happy family and very often showed smiling people, plainly delighted with their new Kodak camera. This would be an interesting topic on its own to investigate.

Reading Portraits

In this section, Bart argues that we can only go so far with “reading” portraits. The four elements give us a language, however we are very limited by surface appearances. Even if there is written material to provide a context or anchor the meaning of a portrait, we are still left with only a “surface” with which to make up our own minds.

Recognition

Bart asks us what do we see when we look at a portrait? He asserts that we recognise a human figure and that this recognition gives us a kind of pleasure. He gives examples such as seeing the photo of a loved one, or suddenly meeting someone seen a long time ago. He argues that this re-cognition, or the return to something already known, is the return to a pleasure already experienced in the past. It’s effectively the repetition of a pleasurable moment.

He goes on to say that “in portraiture we probably encounter three general categories of people, all of which entail different aspects of recognition”: familiar, unfamiliar and the known.

The familiar category includes family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. These images are often circulated in the personal realm such in family albums, desktops and these days probably most often on smart phones.

The known category includes people who exist as a “discursive knowledge”.  That is, they might be familiar to us, but we do not know them in the sense of the familiar category. Examples include famous (and infamous) people (celebrities, stars, politicians, criminals). These people (who may be fictional – Bart uses the example of James Bond) appear in magazines, newspapers etc. – they are very much in the public eye and in that sense, they are known to us.

Bart states that the familiar and known categories “can be seen as comforting, since they repeat, in different ways, figures who are already ‘images’. The pleasure is in seeing the familiar and known again and again”.

The unfamiliar category is the interesting one. These are people who are either ignored, or if they are shown, it is in ways which don’t fit with their self-image. An example which pops to mind are the many photos of the homeless over the years, extending almost to exploitation. This point is expressed very well in a PDN Online interview with Robert Shults. Those photographers who take taken the time to get to know and collaborate with individuals rather than the amorphous entity we call “the homeless”, have presented images which correspond to their actual identities. An example would be Sam Wolson’s project This Life I Lead.

Bart notes that “photographers who are conscious of representing the unrepresented in new ways, which do correlate to their actual identities in some way, is of much value – and this is often where innovations in portraiture are achieved, precisely because they interrupt the comfortable economy of the same”.

In the last part of this section, Bart argues that we get pleasure from recognising someone in an image – be it a loved one or someone famous or infamous. He goes further to suggest that we also get pleasure from the “uncanny impact” of a stranger’s face (the unfamiliar).

Identification

In this section, Bart commences with pointing out how the viewer of an image is unavoidably connected with the camera’s position in the scene – the two are interlinked. We are effectively constrained by the original positioning of the camera. Bart calls this “identification with the camera” and gives cinematic examples which exploit this aspect – for example, “a ‘thrilling’ point-of-view shot, hurtling down a cliff”.  We see many examples of this in sports and leisure activities which have been aided by the production of lightweight, waterproof cameras such as the GoPro and others.

A key aspect is identifying with something or someone. That is, we identify ourselves as being like the person in a portrait. Bart points out that this likeness might only be a fantasy and may never be fulfilled, but nevertheless there “a visual satisfaction in the fantasy of identification”.

He goes further to suggest that there are four types of identification when looking at portraits:

  1. “With the camera, as viewer.
  2. Of the person depicted (recognition).
  3. With the person (or object) depicted.
  4. With the look of the person(s) in the picture at us or other characters in the picture.”

Just from an intuitive point of view, these types of identification make sense. In the domain of marketing, it is number 3 which is perhaps dominant – the desire to be like the person and perhaps to experience their surroundings (luxury, exotic location etc.). Bart doesn’t expand on the 4th point, but I take it to mean the expression on the person’s face, or perhaps their clothes etc. Of course, this then links back to the earlier section on elements of a portrait: face, pose, clothing and location.

Returning to my earlier example of Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up where I argue only location plays a real role of the four elements, I can see that the identification aspect is probably key. We all have washing up and we can identify with the domestic situation and even with the captions of what was eaten that resulted in the washing up.

Narcissism and Looking

In this somewhat complex section, Bart refers to Freud’s theories about how we view ourselves from infancy and the implication that we look at portraits as a kind of reflection of ourselves. He states “in this respect we might see that a central gratification of portraiture is precisely an address to the imaginary question: am I like this person or not?”. From this basis, he moves onto the idea of projection which also affects how we view portraits.

Projection

Bart assets that “in ‘projection’, the viewer casts off uncomfortable feelings, which arise in themselves, and relocates them within another person or thing”. He gives examples of the projection of feelings about a father or mother onto another person who might serve as a substitute such as a father or mother. He argues that the same projection occurs when viewing a portrait.

Thomas Gainsborough: Self-portrait (1759)

I’m not sure why Bart only mentions uncomfortable feelings, because I believe that we can project all sorts of feelings onto others. For example, maybe a person reminds us of someone we like and rightly or wrongly we attribute (project) those feelings on that person.

Bart goes on to suggest that certain types of portraits (be they paintings or photographs) “invite the spectator to fill in the missing details”. At this stage he is writing specifically about the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough. He quotes Joshua Reynolds as stating that the “‘striking resemblance in Gainsborough’s portraits is achieved by leaving ‘many important features undetermined”.

This kind of projection is, I believe, us providing the narrative around the image. Classical portraiture often situated the subject in a fantasy landscape which could be some kind of idealised rural ideal or perhaps an exotic location, all designed to provoke our internal story telling and identification with the sitter. The “missing details” may be about the wealth and social status of the subject or about their profession, such as a ship’s captain.

The Blank Expression

Bart commences this final section of the chapter with a discussion of the “enigmatic” expression on Da Vinci’s painting the Mona Lisa. He states that the expression comes from a painting technique called sfumato, whereby the features are slightly smudged. Apparently, this technique encourages us to project our own feelings onto the image and to “see” them reflected. Bart states that the painting draws us in to an “intimacy” which is caused by what we want to see. 

In the photographic world, there are techniques such as soft-focus or selective lighting which also increase ambiguity of meaning so that the viewer is somehow free to impose their own meaning.

Bart argues that the opposite can also apply. He cites the large, high resolution portraits of Thomas Ruff which provide too much information. His point is that when overloaded with information, we don’t know what is important and what isn’t – we don’t know “what is signified and even less, what the subject is thinking”.

He ends with stating that the meanings of portraits are always “corrupted” by the process of viewing. The viewer always imposes their own interpretation, based on their relationship (identification) with the signifying elements in the image.

Conclusions

The four elements discussed by Bart: face, pose, clothing and location form a useful framework for discussing a portrait. They form the basic organising idea. Building on these elements, the different forms of identification are useful analytical tools which relate to the elements. For example, we can say things about how just changing the position of camera can change our interpretation. Finally the general categories of people (familiar, unfamiliar and known) give us ways of thinking about locating subjects and also give us ways to play with these boundaries by placing people outside of common context (for example: presenting George Clooney at home as the family man).

References

Bate, D. (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts. At: https://ia800402.us.archive.org/31/items/david-bate-photography-the-key-concepts-2009/david-bate-photography-the-key-concepts-2009.pdf [Accessed 25 January 2018]

Daido Moriyama: are-bure-bokeh

In a recent edition of Black+White Photography, Daido Moriyama was mentioned in connection with a style called are-bure-bokeh. I’d heard of the word bokeh, but not of the other two, so my curiosity was piqued.

Sebastian Mayer: Portrait of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, Tokyo 2010

According to his Wikipedia entry, Moriyama is “noted for his images depicting the breakdown of traditional values in post-war Japan”. In particular, his photos “showed the darker sides of urban life and the less-seen parts of cities. In them, he attempted to show how life in certain areas was being left behind the other industrialised parts”.

An article on Artsy cites Moriyama’s influences as including “Eikoh Hosoe, Eugène Atget, Weegee, and William Klein, all who shared a similar affection for the dynamics of city life”.

According to Aesthetica Magazine, the phrase are-bure-bokeh translates as “rough, coarse and out of focus”. The approach (which wasn’t limited to Moriyama) was challenging at the time because it was “in direct contrast to the slick advertising photography of major international corporations during the Japanese post-war economic boom”.

Obviously, this translation should not be taken literally. In fact, looking at a lot of Moriyama’s work, I can’t help but think it’s a small joke. The style is very much “in-your-face”. It often involves the subject filling the frame and with a clear focus on what the subject is. There’s not much room for ambiguity. What is also quite clear is that his style is most definitely not
“rough, course and out of focus”.

The majority of Moriyama’s best known work is in monochrome. In an interview with Aperture, Moriyama talks about his feelings about monochrome and colour: “monochromatic photography is conventionally thought of as having more symbolic, abstract, dreamlike qualities. But I don’t necessarily think that just because an image is in color it is closer to reality.” Having said that, he goes on to say that with digital capture, he can make the choice during post-processing of whether an image should be in colour of monochrome. For that reason, he shoots in colour.

Daido Moriyama: Tights, 1987-2011

In the same Aperture interview, he states that “black-and-white photography has an erotic edge for me, in a broad sense. Color doesn’t have that same erotic charge … If I am out wandering and I see photographs hung on the walls of a restaurant, say, if they are black and white, I get a rush! It’s really a visceral response. I haven’t yet seen a color photograph that has given me shivers. That is the difference between the two.” In the end, as he makes clear, it’s about how he feels at the time he is making images.

Daido Moriyama: Tokyo, 1978

He is quite clear that he believes there are no themes in his work. He finds that outside of Japan, this may be difficult to understand. He states clearly that  he  can’t really think about theme as he is work working as “it is too limiting, and the camera work becomes restricted”. He plainly resists the pigeon-holing as working in a particular area and feels that would be too restricting. As he puts it finally, “with a predetermined theme, possibilities are reduced, and the conversation then becomes one of form. That’s not something that I am capable of doing, really”.

References

Photo of Daido Moriyama by Sebastian Mayer: used under Creative Commons license: CC BY-SA 4.0