This video piece on photography and portraiture went viral earlier this week. A loved one shared it to me on facebook, believing it would be, as they say, in my wheelhouse. Surprisingly I wasn’t wowed. I wasn't sure how to respond, so till now I hadn’t done more than simply like the post, hoping the loved one who posted would at least know her sharing was welcome. It truly is.
That first paragraph functions as a preamble. I stood in the shower last night , quizzing myself as to just why, honestly, I had not liked the basis for, or the finished work in the project. I won’t completely repeat the details, since you can just watch the video, but basically a third party had engaged a subject to pitch 6 different lies to six different photographers about his personal history. They each made portraits (one at a time, with no knowledge of each other) in the same studio space, using the same basic variety of backgrounds and props, and to my knowledge, the same available lighting. I presume each photographer (not the organizer who arranged it all) chose one image they liked from their session to print for presentation. Loosely speaking, they tried to reflect “who he is” in the portraits.
As I examined my responses, I realized my first instinct, questionable at best and worth watching out for in future, was, “How would I have done that differently?” We all have our font of arrogance, and I doubt I’m vastly different from a lot of people, falling back to that question. Still, from that question my discomfort began to emerge. I would have told the subject to give every photographer the same version of the same history, false or not. That way, how different each portrait might be would not suffer any musing over the idea that premeditated lies could be important engines for visual meaning. I’ll probably have to continue to argue with myself over whether or not there may be value in that premise.
I would have given each photographer run of the whole building, not just the one room, because so damn much of what real portrait artists do is use their senses to search for, or produce that alchemy of space, light, angle of view, perspective, and input of subject expressed and bounced back during exposure. I felt making them all work in one room with the same light served to superimpose a false uniformity to the results. Perhaps that was the point. I just don’t find it to be an interesting point. If they were each given reign to wander a bit, just talk as real people to each other, then you might have truly seen how differently real photographic artists express a subject during one given afternoon.
As this tumbled around in the rickety Kenmore dryer of my mind, like a tennis shoe with plastic tips on the laces, I began to understand more clearly some elements that I’ve been studying and writing about over the last three years.
This from my recent thesis -
“In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes uses the term, “punctum” to describe how details captured in a single beat can function to grab and command our attention:
“ … this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation … I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole -and also a cast of the dice. A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me ...”
Susan Sontag dissects that primary aspect of the photograph as an image made from a slice of time. She argues that this makes photography quintessentially surreal, reminding us that the present always immediately becomes past, equating life indelibly with loss, aging, and death. Barthes’ “Punctum” often resides precisely within that slice-of- time aura, of surprise and quirky nuance in a photograph.
Diane Arbus’s image of stripper Sata Lyte demonstrates these qualities. In that strange contrast between her stripper’s costume, her busty near nudity, and her quizzical face (complete with cat eye glasses) lives punctum. The vintage antiquity of her glasses and the sad, dated details of the dressing room, with it’s ancient sink and harsh bathroom light, all invoke that surreal sense of a fraction of antiquated time lifted from the past for ongoing scrutiny.
Contemporary master of the portrait and the staged fashion photograph (Figure 2.), Richard Avedon, described these aspects of photography differently. He says:
“(The)camera lies all the time. It’s all it does is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment … the moment you’ve made a choice, you’re lying about something larger. ‘Lying’ is an ugly word … any artist picks and chooses what they want to paint or write about or say. Photographers are the same.”
Figure 2. Richard Avedon. In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort. 1995.
(A photograph) calls into question our notions of truth; it slices the image from its context while studying someone’s attempt to show how they might wish to appear (Fig. 3). How the artist catches these disjunctions often presents a surprise that is different from the best laid plans of either party. “
Figure 3. Stratton McCrady. Tera, 2014 ”
-- and so circling back to the now --
Finally, I understood why the affectation of fabricating false historys of the subject for each photographer bothered me. This is so elemental to what I have realized matters to me in my work. I’m so grateful to my loved ones for hammering it home like this;
In my work I seek the surprise. When working with a subject, who they are, and who they want to be, how they look and feel, and how they wish to look and feel are all literally the same thing (no matter how badly either party in the exchange might wish it otherwise.) The camera doesn’t care, and is too stupid to know the difference. When I was young, the 60s catch phrase for computers was, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
The light shines, the people move, the camera captures, I edit … during every single step I apply all my photo-y skill. I try to encourage as much attention and input and shared ownership as possible from my subject through every step of the process, and especially when the pictures have been chosen and are ready to see. What I am learning is, the pictures I make which are any good are the ones that feel uncontrolled, where, in that tiny instant, something bare and essential shows up in the frame. Maybe something neither of us really had any control over. The control comes in acceptance and ownership, in agreement that we, that subject and I are in that picture.
Not one of the finished portraits in the video grabbed me in such ways. Not one.