How long can a photographer avoid weighing some of the foundations that photography has engaged since its most unconscious, but ambitious beginnings? I am sure that all the traditional ideas concerning the portrait, the landscape and the still life began to be reconsidered on the very same day that the first photographs were studied. Arbitrarily categorizing this content, while probably a trifle simplistic, also makes it possible to gain better view where photography has been and where it is more than containing or impeding its forward progress.
Every month I talk to my students about how they might make their work more informed and in some sense or another, just better. When looking at the range and individualized points of their portraits, I am eternally nagged by the enormity of this one unasked and unanswered question. I continue to research, inform myself, and search for some resonant, universal definition, general or specific, as to what might be some singular, specific essence of a portrait. Before you read on, I must confess some failure.
What I have discovered and know about life is somewhat analogous with what I have uncovered about portraiture. Things that I assume I know, I’m usually wrong about, and things that I have investigated and possess from real experience, usually contain some truth or honesty that I can utilize in deepening my investigations. Most importantly, life consistently manages to throw me a few curveballs in the “my experience is knowledge area”. This is where I think some of the definitions of portraiture begin.
Portraits have to do with people. That might seem obvious, but William Wegman’s portraits of his dog, Fay, are both beautiful and troubling in making this simplistic general and reductive statement about portraiture. I have seen and actually made some beautiful portraits of dogs and cats and even some inanimate objects that are infinitely more touching, compelling and human than some of the pictures of people made by so called professional photographers. Portraiture does possess an extraordinary ability to reveal some quality of the human expression even in a dog. This is a big curve, but not really an insurmountable wall because one of the most crucial considerations in portraiture is the artist’s eye, idea and expression.
Portraits are about a relationship between the subject, background and the artist. Photographers coax, direct and employ a variety of different techniques to create a relationship with their subject in order to insure a certain visible temperament in the portrait. They choose the place, time and ambience of the event. In a portrait, everything in the frame is in an indelible and hierarchical relationship with everything else. The additional complexity that only the viewer can qualify is what they think was missing in the portrait. All that is chosen and included in the frame as well as what was considered and discarded combine, comingle and contribute to the portrait circumstance. Just as critical is everything that appears as pose, eye contact, gesture and that ephemeral quality of emotion. On the other hand, I recently revisited the compelling portraits that Walker Evans made of people riding the New York City Subway, without their knowledge. The photographs are powerful and speak volumes about the character and mood of his subjects. The people are unguarded, present and exhibit an incredible range of expression with no direction from Evans.
Are these portraits?
Portraits are made by photographers with ideas and passion. When we look at the quantity and diversity of works that can be categorized or qualify as portraiture, or when we see what impact a photographer’s ideas have upon the finished portrait, then seeing really becomes a large part of believing or at the very least, the recognition of artistic intention. Portraits are, as far as I can tell, a phenomenal photographic circumstance or situation defying any real formula, set precedent or circumstance, but embracing all that we might know and feel about our connection to a sense of humanity, intentionally imbued with individual and personal signature. Artists begin, not with the subject, human or otherwise, but from a desire to communicate their sense of a connection with individuality, community and/or humanity. We, the uninformed and maybe guarded viewer, can observe where our humanity might be. The artist makes a picture that directs us to those ideas. We should really look to art these days. It just might contain some of the ideas we are all searching for.