Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rubbernecking: On Portraiture

One of my favorite photographers Josef Koudelka once remarked in an interview with Frank Horvat that for him "there are few portraits that I admire." I was struck by this comment because my own view is so different -- there are quite a few portraits that I admire, and they dont appear to be of any one type so it is difficult for me to know just what it is that I like about portraiture, whether it be of the posed variety, something along the lines of Rogovin or Sanders, or the more impromptu spontaneous type, of which HCB's superb snaps of Matisse or of Faulkner are such outstanding examples.

It was portraiture that got me into the business of taking pictures, and yet when I am assigned to bring back a portrait of a subject, I cannot help but sweat it, and I cannot quite think why. Perhaps it is the discrepancy between the illustration that the editor is really after and the genuine portrait that I myself hope to capture. For me portraiture is the most difficult of arts and yet there are so many superb practitioners to be found.

In the same interview, Koudelka mentions that he has a habit of photographing his feet. Conventionally speaking such imagery is not portraiture, though it occurs to me to ask why a head shot should merit such distinction while a foot shot should be dismissed as a photographer's mere eccentricity (and Koudelka himself appears to agree, "When I am tired I lie down, and if I feel like photographing and there is nobody around me, I photograph my own feet. They are not great photos, some people dislike them"). Why are they not great? Why are they not worthy of greater attention? Is it because we have uncritically swallowed the notion that the eyes are windows unto the soul? (Havent we heeded Avedon's warning that such imagery is nothing more than a very convincing lie?) Are feet really any less distinctive or informative -- certainly the image of Koudelka's feet here tells us a lot about this famously peripatetic and homeless photographer. Bear in mind too that the one thing that unquestionably identifies each and every one of us is the humble fingerprint. In that case, the police archives constitute a perverse museum that rivals London's National Portrait Gallery.

Even hands are given priority over feet, as in this Yousuf Karsh "portrait" of Thomas Mann:

And here is his better known portrait of Thomas Mann:

More of his remarkable work can be seen at the George Eastman House collection. Again the hands are given some prominence, and I suspect this stems from cultural ideas about the Hand of the Artist (regardless of whether he or she be a writer, musician or painter). The synecdoche is an important indicator not so much of the character of the individual depicted in the portrait but of contemporary ideologies regarding art and creation. (But I am compelled to ask again, should we require a portrait, say, of a long distance runner, would it not be advisable to focus on the feet? What is more telling, Florence Griffiths Joyner's excessive fingernails or her toes?)

Clearly the force of this portraiture lies in the sharp physical detail afforded by the lighting and the fact that these are all shot in large format. Such technique requires a laborious setup and thus the results are very much posed but nonetheless striking in the impression they give of the utterly convincing presence of the subject. Overall the range of emotion is not great: a Karsh portrait is invariably iconic, monumental. Yet Karsh himself clearly believed he was capturing the essence of his subjects' character: "If it's a likeness, alone, it's not a success. If, through my portraits, you can come to know the subjects more meaningfully, if it synthesizes your feelings toward someone whose work has imprinted itself on your mind--if you see a photograph and say, 'Yes, this is the person,' with a little new insight--that is a beautiful experience." In his view the purpose of portraiture is not to capture a likeness but to communicate the subject's character; you are supposed to get to know him or her better. More often what he really captured was their social role or occupation: Miro with a paint brush, Martha Graham the dancer, Churchill the bully-bully leader, and in this he is not really so very different from August Sanders who sought to depict social types through his portraits. But Karsh was no sociologist; he was perhaps something of a transitional figure, a portraitist who focused on the individual's social role but eschewed the environmental detail that otherwise would define that role, preferring to focus on a putative human essence. His theme was The Great Man in History. On the other hand, an "environmental portraitist" like Arnold Newman at times almost buries his subject in the environment, as in his famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky, who appears at the extreme left edge in a frame dominated by the triangular shape of his grand piano, or as in this portrait of Jacob Lawrence framed by his own paintings:

And here is my favorite, the consummate portrait of the Power Broker, Robert Moses:

This could very well be the quintessential environmental portrait, the city builder framed against a panoply of the city whose form he stamped with a will as rigid and unyielding as the girder on which he stands. The symbolic elements of the picture couldnt be more apt, and yet the photo is as unspontaneous as they come, purely factitious, a set-up. Entirely opposed to my own aesthetic, it remains one of my favorite photographs and an outstanding example of portraiture. But do we really get to know Robert Moses any better through it? Could it be that Newman's shift of emphasis onto the environment signals an unconscious fear that portraiture is somehow empty, inherently incapable of telling us anything at all about the subject, except confirm that which we already know?

Sometimes I think that the role of portraiture is nothing other than to comfort us, to confirm us in our thinking about a particular individual and the role he or she plays in the larger social and historical processes that shape us. In Karsh's work Churchill is just as we would have him be, the bulldog leader, and Newman's portrait of Moses has him looking every bit the Power Broker. In a sense, such portraits are not about the individual at all, but about affirming an underlying ideology about individualism and potent subjectivity. In a sense, then, Luc de la Haye's subway portraits are the ultimate anti-portrait, since the relentless repetition of vacant staring faces, set out in a checkerboard pattern so as to absorb each face in an abstract design, virtually guarantees their nullity. And yet, there is still this need to look into faces and espy something unexpected, a fugitive spirit, a quirk.

So what is the purpose of portraiture? Why this lust for faces, why this need to look one in the eye? I suspect that in part portraiture serves a need to do just that -- look another in the eye without risking a confrontation. We confront the other without incurring their displeasure; we study them at our leisure and our pleasure. We customarily think of photographers as voyeurs, with the implication that their viewing involves some guilty pleasure -- but we are all guilty of a deep-seated scopophilia that obliges us to look with an unacknowledged need for some kind of forbidden knowledge. In a sense portraits are like the fruit of that very tree that cost us our freedom and our innocence. Perhaps it is precisely because we violate an unspoken social taboo; the looking is transgressive. We all crane our necks when we pass the scene of an accident. But what do we learn, once we see?

Crossing the line, confronting and passing beyond normal limits, may be something subtler and more significant than we assume. It could well be that our need to look fixedly at the world involves a drive that is nobler than mere pleasure, though we ought not to discount the value of that pleasure. Rather than primitive sex or aggression, perhaps there are unsuspected metaphysical or ontological motives at work here. Again, Koudelka implies this when he states his own purpose behind the incessant photographic activity that appears to characterize his daily existence: "The philosophic aspects of photography don't interest me. What interests me are its limits. I always photograph the same people, the same situations, because I want to know the limits of those people, of those situations, and also my own limits." This certainly characterizes his Gypsies book, a book whose narrative, interestingly, is punctuated periodically with conventional frontal, look-you-in-the-eye portraits that never fail to draw you in.

It might be that the limits of what we know are what we really hanker for; when we rubberneck we are hoping for a glimpse of that bone and blood that normally hides below the surface and cheats us of our false views of identity and immortality, which is probably why Renaissance intellectuals kept memento mori on their desks. The scene of the crash offers us a moment of honest appraisal, but only if we take our eyes off the road. Modern institutions work so hard to hide all that from us that we are left with a craving for reality which ironically we satisfy by looking at pictures.

Which brings me back to HCB's snaps: their seemingly casual and effortless approach to capturing individuals who were among the greatest figures of the twentieth century would seem to fly in the face of professional photography and its painstaking attempts through lighting and arrangement to render a Portrait of the Great Man. But what could be more unexpected than to see Matisse the great painter as a somewhat comic figure surrounded by his pet doves? Or this snap of Faulkner, the Great Brooding Southern Writer, out strolling with his pet dogs? Is this the man who wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep?

Though I never thought so before, I would argue now that HCB may well have been the greatest portraitist of his generation. Without any of the paraphernalia of professional photography -- all the pomp and circumstance heralded by the bags of lights and big cameras, the import of which is to justify one's day rate -- HCB simply snapped his subjects in the stream of life, "a la sauvette," and like any such moments seized from the flux, they surprise us with their lived reality, their unquestionable affirmation not of the individual but of the imperious reality of that particle of space and time. They are genuine, human and humane, but they are not conventionally humanist.

I would elect one other photographer to my pantheon of great portraitists a la sauvette: Eugene Smith. True he has been criticized by purists for his manipulation of some of his portraits -- he superimposed symbolic imagery in his famous portrait of Schweitzer and he essentially posed the famous portrait of the spinner in his essay, A Spanish Village. But his work is populated throughout by portraits snapped on the run which convincingly capture individuals in the coils of life. While I suspect that Smith probably clung to ideas of individuality and essence, his fundamental practice as a photojournalist more often than not won out. Here is his superb portrait of Charlie Chaplin from Limelight, and I offer it up fully conscious of the many ironies posed by a portrait of an actor in costume and on stage -- where do the representations end?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Web and the Future of Journalism

I just came across a blog, Invisible Inkling, written by a very fiesty and perceptive grad student in Mass Communications at San Jose State University. Ryan Sholin's site is full of thought provoking commentary on the current state of journalism and its need to come to terms with new communication technology. For a quick and concise look at some of the basic tenets, read through this thread on "10 obvious things about the future of the newspapers"; not only the original list but the copious responses too contain lots of good ideas that all of us must seriously consider. There are huge opportunities here in terms of distributing our work, reaching more people in new ways using new narrative tools -- if we pay attention to what is happening on the web in a comprehensive manner. But I have to agree with Ryan that newspapers and the media as a whole have been very slow to adopt and adapt -- and have done so in a very desultory piecemeal fashion. For example, they all have "multimedia" pages, but they dont bother to exploit the technology to the fullest in order to give us a deeper "reading" experience. You want people to enter the tent, you had better provide an experience that lives up to the hype you're barking.

Just look at points five and eight for starters:

5. You don’t get to charge people for archives and you certainly don’t want to charge people for daily news content. Pulling your copy behind walls where it can’t be seen by readers on the wider Web. Search rules. Don’t hide from it.

8. You ignore new delivery systems at your own peril. RSS, SMS, iPhone, e-paper, Blackberry, widgets, podcasts, vlogs, Facebook, Twitter — these aren’t the competition, these are your new carriers. Learn how to deliver your content across every new technology that comes into view on the horizon, and be there when new devices go into mass production.

Quite so. We are all looking for ways to make money from the net so that our work does not go uncompensated and we can continue to do it: but charging readers in this manner is probably a retrograde procedure. For an analysis of the problem, read Vin Crosbie's article on "Rebuilding Media." Above all, and this is something I have been working on steadily ever since I got my first grant, we must look into all the "new delivery systems" so as to extend our presence in every direction. Really, the web presence of most media outlets is rather disappointing in comparison with other websites -- even the so called "multimedia" productions are rather conservative in approach and offer little more than slideshows. MediaStorm is a notable exception, but when you visit, say, Time Magazine's site do you ever see anything approaching that level of innovation? No. Why not?

I will be writing more about this important theme, but meanwhile you couldnt do better than to have a look through this stimulating site, as you will be well rewarded. And kudos to Ryan for taking on the industry head on.