Assignment One – Background (v)
Although the portraits I took for this Assignment are all of individuals they do not fall into the category of ‘biographical portraiture’ of which four kinds may be identified that ‘preserve the fragmentary nature of human existence’ (Brilliant, 1991: 132):
First, this [preservation] can be achieved through a series of portraits, made of different times and representing different stages in a person’s life; … Or, … only a significant aspect of a life may be chosen for representation in portraits, because of its special saliency or great historical importance in that life; … Other prominent figures, … although portrayed by a number of artists at various times, seem to change very little with the passing years. And last, some portraits of public figures, such as Lenin, eventually, through repetition, become clichés or are so from their very inception, these latter images never seem to change at all, but through replication become in effect iconic (Brilliant, 1991: 133).
Examples of the first type above are Nicholas Nixon’s series ‘The Brown Sisters’ (O’Hagan, 2014) or Neta Dror’s series ‘15/20’ (FotoRoom, 2017); an example of the second type is a photograph of Alan Shepard who flew the first U.S. manned spaceflight (see fig.1.). Brilliant (1991) concludes concerning these four kinds of biographical portraiture:
These four kinds of biographical portraits stimulate very different patterns of reception, since the first group explicitly acknowledges the fact of change in human life, the second ignores it, the third barely accommodates it, while the fourth denies it all together (Brilliant, 1991: 134).
This is an interesting way to consider a portrait, however, the five portraits for this Assignment (see Gallery 1 below) do not fall into either of the four kinds above. Nevertheless each does contain an element of narrative, giving them a potential to add depth of character and interest other than relying on the contours or expression of the subject’s face alone. This consideration (and others, see below) decided me on using the landscape format for the final series chosen for the Assignment. For example the outdoor display of the painting in image 2, the white van parked in the deserted street in image 1 and the empty street vanishing into the distance in image 3 all are suggestive of a narrative related to the subject.
This narrative element to the Assignment portraits is supplied by the viewer and is a reminder that:
All portraits envisage a complex transaction between the implied viewer and the subject, an allusion as essential to the viewer’s role as it is imaginary. But portraits come to the viewer’s conscious mind like the magical, unsettling reflections exhibited by the trick mirrors popular in carnivals and circuses. They may reflect an image of the person standing in front of them, often with such distortions, or so unstably, that the connection between the image and its source seems uncertain … (Brilliant, 1991: 141).
In the case of the Assignment portraits this ‘complex transaction’ (above) is less apparent since the subjects’ appearance as compared to that depicted in their photograph is an unknown both to any third party viewers and also in this case to the subjects themselves (something that would not be the case in for example a commissioned portrait). In addition, viewing the portrait of someone known to them may confront the viewer:
with an image so apparently ‘different’ from the expected that the portrait seems to be of a stranger, yet not completely so, thus forcing the viewer, upon due reflection, to respond to the artist’s interpretation (Brilliant, 1991: 141).
The possibility of such an above confrontation is absent in the five Assignment portraits thus leaving them open to (or restricted to) an imaginative interpretation by the viewer and a respond to the artist’s interpretation that is devoid of any prior or subsequent knowledge of the subjects. Such interpretation could be purely aesthetic, or narrative (as mentioned above) or interpretative of character. This latter is an important aspect of any portrait because of belief in the possibility that the portrait ‘turns the interior of the figure towards the outside and renders it visible’ (Schelling cited in Brilliant, 1991: 129). However, two portrait series by John Edmonds illustrates how widely this aspect may be interpreted. When Edmonds:
first started taking portraits, he worked from a tried-and-true script. Pose your subject, frame the face or body, and attempt to capture their unique individual essence. Then he started to envision a different way to approach portraiture. Edmonds wanted to use the art form to challenge people’s preconceptions about race and cultural identity (Little, 2017).
In the series ‘Hoods’ Edmonds ‘confronts the toxicity of racial bias’ (Tobak, 2106) and:
aims to provide more questions than answers. In capturing a spate of faceless portraits in colored hoodies photographed from behind [see fig. 2. – 5.], … [Edmonds] is not only concerned with the representation of contemporary black masculinity and racial perceptions, but also how a simple item of clothing can, in essence, become a symbol. And not just any kind of symbol, but a symbol translated and contorted through the national gaze. Thus, by obscuring the wearer’s face and identity, Edmonds confronts prejudiced notions surrounding black identity.
In another series titled, ‘All Eyes On Me’:
a man with a covered nose and mouth gazes at the camera or slightly to the left or right [see fig. 6.]. The series is presented as a succession of 40 almost identical near-frames. As the viewer walks around the gallery space, the man’s gaze seems to follow. This intense “eye contact” might cause some to feel uncomfortable. Edmonds says that this interaction between subject and viewer is where the true reflection starts. “He has such a piercing gaze that you have to look closely at this individual,” he says. “Your imagination starts to roam. This is a recurring theme in all of my work—the gaze being flipped back onto the viewer” (Little, 2017).
What is interesting about these series is that they challenge the conventions of portraiture and portrait photography.
Gallery 1 (click to enlarge) final set of portraits for the Assignment
FotoRoom (2017) Neta Dror Portrayed These Girls When They Were 15 Years Old, and Then Again at 20. At: http://fotoroom.co/15-20-neta-dror/ (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Little, Myles (2017) ‘How One Photographer Is Challenging Our Perceptions of Black Men’ In TIME magazine [online] At: http://time.com/4731385/photo-perception-black-men/?xid=newsletter-photos-weekly (Accessed on 10.06.17)
O’Hagan, Sean (2014) ‘We are family: Nicholas Nixon’s 40 years photographing the Brown sisters’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/19/nicholas-nixon-40-years-brown-sisters-portraits-moma (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Tobak, Vikki (2016) ‘This Photographer Is Challenging Racial Perceptions About Black Men’ In: Fader [online] At: http://www.thefader.com/2016/07/21/john-edmonds-photographer-interview (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Figure 1. NASA (1961) Alan Shepard Suited Up At: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width_feature/public/images/535467main_Suit_full.jpg?itok=PT7u19LY (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Figure 2. Edmonds, John (2016) from Hoods At: http://thefader-res.cloudinary.com/images/w_750,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:best/File_000_fb4toy/john-edmonds-photographer-interview.jpg (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Figure 3. Edmonds, John (2016) from Hoods At: http://thefader-res.cloudinary.com/images/w_960,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:best/File_001_jvpxwk/john-edmonds-photographer-interview.jpg (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Figure 4. Edmonds, John (2016) from Hoods At: http://thefader-res.cloudinary.com/images/w_750,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:best/File_001_1_noqmt1/john-edmonds-photographer-interview.jpg (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Figure 5. Edmonds, John (2016) from Hoods At: http://thefader-res.cloudinary.com/images/w_750,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:best/File_003_1_xqwhre/john-edmonds-photographer-interview.jpg (Accessed on 10.06.17)
Figure 6. Edmonds, John (2016) from All Eyes On Me At: http://payload461.cargocollective.com/1/4/136133/11537343/_MG_1243-Print_600.jpg (Accessed on 10.06.17)