Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Problem with Portraits

Two recent discussions about portraits seem to have antagonised many photographers. The first remark which incurred the wrath of many was from J F Leroy ( Director of Visa Pour l'Image Festival) "Portraits are a lazy way to tell a story" and this was then posted by Monica Allende on Facebook and inevitably a backlash came from photographers. There were comments about how much hard work goes into portrait projects which slightly missed the point to me. Portraits and storytelling are at odds with each other although even World Press Photo Award introduced a section devoted to them which reflects how important they have become in today's media. If photojournalism documents events and is an eyewitness in a narrative then a pause created by a portrait interrupts that natural flow. The photographer is part of the intervention rather than a fly on the wall. Portraits of people in extreme news situation often produce strong images but do they tell us more about a situation than a scene full of nuances and ambiguous gestures? The portrait often feels like a statement of fact but it is a single point bluntly made and as a narrative or as a series the point is simply made over and over again. That repetition cannot compare with a well laid out story that takes you on a journey of understanding. In response to the "lazy" accusation I posted a Don Mc Cullin photo rather than make a comment on Monica Allende's page. In this case it is a portrait but rather than the photographer pausing an event it is the soldier himself who is frozen by what he has experienced in the theatre of war. He has not presented himself to the camera and it feels as though there is not the self awareness on both sides that goes into the usual photographer and subject relationship. It is a portrait as document as opposed to a portrait as an event within itself.

Shell shocked US Marine after Tet offensive, Vietnam  (Photo by Don McCullin)

Andy, West Bromwich,England (copyright Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos From "Face", Dewi Lewis Publishing )

The second debate that raged was about Bruce Gildens new work. This is firmly in the land of confrontation without subtlety or nuance. The straight posed portrait has been mastered by the likes of August Sander, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe (self portraits in particular) and Gilden in some way follows that tradition. His technique in his book takes starkness to a new level through harsh flash, sharpness and vibrant colour. It is obvious that the tightly cropped headshots with the person looking straight into the lens could have only been done through a dialogue and agreement. The photographer obviously delights in seeing his subjects every pore, spot and blemish. It would be a retouchers dream assignment for long term wealth. This to me is the point. The biggest development in portrait photography in the last 20 years has been the use of retouching. Awhole new language has seeped into our visual understanding. Everyone now has easy access to airbrushing techniques for profile photos, selflies and that is before we start with professional photographers. It has become accepted in magazines and newspaper supplements to clean skin, brighten eyes or do something about the less than perfect teeth. It is done minimally and subtly but it has changed our view of reality as delivered by a portrait. This is how Gilden delivers such a devastating blow visually and it feels like a rage against how society has marginalised the ugly, the spotty, the quirky or indeed anyone whose face does not "fit in". We are not used to seeing this and comments from photographers included "striking" "stark" "unforgiving" but also said that the photographs showed "no empathy" or were "respectless".  One photographer mentioned how "Avedon was able to bring the pure beauty out of every face". As photographers is that the goal or is there room for different approaches that actually challenge the viewer?

Portraits in todays media have largely become as selling tool. Faces appear on websites and in magazines to promote a new film, a new play, a new restaurant and the same celebrities appear if their publicity machines are slick enough year in year out. There are thousands of technically brilliant portraits produced that reveal nothing new about that person. They are simply a visual reminder of their product. Portraits can be powerful and they can reveal like a carefully woven psychological profile but rarely are those difficult questions asked by photographers through their photographs. When a photographer asks those difficult questions it stands out a mile.

The media is stuck in a narrow view of how people should look and it is therefore the photographers challenge to ask difficult questions through their work and to show how everyone else has become lazy in their views and assumptions.


With thanks to dewilewispublishing.com

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