portrait photography essay
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DESCRIPTIONAs part of a project at A2 on identiy I explored the aspects of portrait photography & how it has been interpreted by various photographers.
Introduction A set of characteristics by which something can be recognised or known is called its identity. We recognise a table by the fact is has a surface and is supported by legs, however we are adaptable to this identity, for instance there may only be one leg but that does not stop it from being identified as a table. When you start to talk about humans, this basic idea of identity tends to become a lot more complex. But does that mean that we cannot identify different people? Of course not, it just means that we have to be aware that identity runs deeper than the bare facts, especially when it comes to people. There are two main aspects to the concept of human identity; the first is that of the identity we carve out for ourselves. We would like to be seen in a certain way, whether thats to fit in or to stand out is down to the individuals themselves. The second aspect, and perhaps the least clear, is that of the identity given to us by others. Everyone has their own perceptions of certain types of people and makes their own judgements about other individuals based on these perceptions, however limited. This conflict between how we discover and present our own identity and how others interpret it is what makes human and personal identity so complex. The contradiction we may find between the identities I something that photography has the ability to unify and present to a viewer as art. As well as showing us the subjects themselves, a portrait can present us with something that pushes us to feel a certain way about them, because of the photographers viewpoint. This combines all aspects of personality for the viewer in a way that just seeing them would not. It can also show the subject certain things about themselves that they possibly didnt know. Within a portrait, all these different layers can be manipulated to produce a three-dimensional aesthetic, which is otherwise unavailable in other media.
Lila with Nintendo DS, from the Coming to A Screen Near You series by Evan Baden
Old vs New In the modern world identity is something very different to what it once was. With the introduction of the Internet and more and more technology we find ourselves conducting a lot of our communication from behind a computer or phone. This leaves a lot of room for identity to be altered more by the individual and to have more control over the person they choose to be. So even though we all begin with certain values, cultural and moral from our parents and families, its easier now to find influence from other sources like literature and the media, as they are just so readily available. Identity has changed a lot over the last few thousand years, however religions continue to differ on the identity of which they choose to see their Gods. Christians believe in God being in their own image, ie, human. As quoted from the bible:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; Male and female he created them (Genisis 1:27)
Muslims believe that Allah cannot be compared to anything worldly or human, even though they may be similar this does not mean that they are the same. This allows Allah to exist above the assumptions of human form and identity as a higher being:
There is nothing like Him; and He is the Hearer, the Seer (Ash-Shura:11)
This need of Christians to put a face to their God, and not only a face but in their own image, perhaps suggests why Christianity can be said to be a much more Western religion than Islam. This picture of painting the highest being, the one to look up to, as a human being allows worshippers to see themselves as direct descendents from God, therefore giving them ownership over their religion and their aspirations for what they can achieve. To see man as the highest being allows us to think that we as men are closer to that divinity than others. Identity has long been the muse of the literary and creative, with the poet Robert Burns writing To see oursels as ithers see us!3 even back in 1786, pondering the idea of personal identity from anothers point of view and the lack of control we have on that. Modern authors such as Douglas Coupland continue to explore the nature of modern identity in relation to technology, based around the computer industries with characters struggling between true-life identity and that of a synthetic one they are able to create.4
The photographer Evan Baden created a collection of work entitled Coming to A Screen Near You5 where he photographed children and teenagers lit only by the screens that dictate their lives. This representation of how much of our lives are not spent looking at a computer screen or a mobile phone, communicating through that and carving out any identity that we so choose, raises massive questions about modern identity and what this means for the generation whos only identity appears on a website. Whether they are able to cope with the conflict between real life perceptions and who they say they are is yet to be seen.
Kevin Cater, 1993
Nick Ut, 1972
Portraiture A portrait is defined as a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing or photograph.7 This presents it as a straightforward way of capturing someone on film or through art; into pictorial form but when you look at a portrait photograph its never that simplistic. The viewer, the photographer and the subject all have their own agendas. Within each of these areas there are different factors, which add up to give more depth to the end photograph as a whole. A story that highlights the role of the photographer is that of Kevin Carter. In 1993 the New York Times published a picture he took of an emaciated Sudanese child crouching on the ground next to a vulture. It later won him the Pulitzer Prize, however tortured by the turmoil of repeatedly having to answer that he didnt entirely know what happened to the girl later the photo was taken; Carter committed suicide just one year later.8 Although the photograph brought Sudan to huge public attention the fact that he has seemingly taken something from the child without helping her, became an issue he himself could not get over. Another story though, is that of Phan Th Kim Phc, the girl photographed running naked from a bomb in Vietnam. It is the iconic image of the Vietnam war and is enforced by the fact that she is still alive today thanks to the man who took the photograph, Nick Ut. After capturing the image, him and the people he was with then poured water on the burns of Phc and the others from her village then took them to the nearest hospital. Ut then continued to visit Phc until he was exiled three years later.9 These examples show just how much responsibility the photographer has toward the subjects. Although the photographer plays a huge part in making the subject feel at ease a portrait can still put them in a very vulnerable position. Looking straight down a lens that you know can see everything that you may not want it to see is an intimidating situation to be in. Some people as a result of this will put on a front, change their posture to be more defensive for example, or pay attention to the way they dress especially for the shoot. This introduces an element of deceptiveness into portraiture whereby although the photographer may try and capture what he or she sees in front of them, the subject may already have decided to present an edited version of their self.
Martin Parr, Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, 1985
Martin Parr, How the Other Half Lives, 2008
In my photographs I wanted to create a situation I hoped would take away this ability of the subject to show themselves as what they want to be seen and not what they are. By using something to provoke a natural reaction I think this element of self-consciousness will be taken away, if not at least made minimal. This ability to provoke a reaction from a photograph brings the final aspect of portrait photography into action, that of the viewer. In the same way as people project their own perceptions onto people they meet everyday, they also do when looking at a portrait photograph. Martin Parr is a photographer who is popularly acclaimed if not always understood for his photographs of the working class. His latest work however, turns its eye on the filthy rich, producing images of excess and contradiction that coerce the viewer into thinking certain things about these people. The way Parr frames the ladies in too tight dresses at Ascot,12 presents an image of people trying to present themselves in a certain way and not succeeding. So although helped along by the composition the viewer projects their own prejudices onto them as well. All these aspects work together within a portrait to create an overall effect that becomes the portrait itself. As well as the subject helped by the photographer; projecting an image out to the viewer they are also projecting their own ideas pack. This constant change in opinion and context make it very difficult to pin down the thoughts within an image without looking at the aspects individually. That is, however, the beauty of a portrait photograph and how it so links with the topic of identity, as you can never see the whole picture wherever you view it from.
Steve Klein for W Magazine, Domestic Bliss, 2005
Tim Walker for Italian Vogue, Oh-oh! 2002
Male Gaze Laura Mulvey first coined the term Male Gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published in 1975.13 In terms of cinema, the male gaze can be seen when the viewer is placed in the role of a heterosexual male. This appears on screen as perhaps a stereotyped female character or with lingering shots focusing on a womans curves, for example. This type of objectivity from a specifically male orientated viewpoint led to the term of the male gaze and has since been accepted as a media theory. Although originally created for use in terms of media and cinema as the areas are so heavily influenced by each other, the term obviously became important in photography too. Brad Pitt teamed up with the photographer Steven Klein to produce a spread for W Magazine in 2005,14 which depicted him and new love, Angelina Jolie in various domestic situations. Set in 1963, Pitt describes this era when, The faade was still being maintained, but things were starting to crumble underneath14 the family value of the 50s starting to erode with the rebellion of the 60s. Within this shoot Jolie is presented as a pillar of womanly perfection, never out of full make up or dress even when playing with the kids. Pitt himself is usually suited, presumably just home from work, and barely without a drink in his hand. There is one image that shows the male gaze clearly as play, Jolie stands in the foreground of the photo, barely clothes in a black slip with a drink in her hand and her head turned down, away from Pitt, who turns back from the far end of the corridor to view her. He and the viewer are implicated in seeing her from a very male perspective, vulnerable and highly sexualised. Even though this shoot was based in the less feminist early 60s theres something uncomfortable about the blatant stereotyping. Acclaimed fashion and portrait photographer Irving Penn once said, I dont think the girls personality should ever intrude that it is not, of any significance15, this depicts perfectly the contradictions in some fashion photography where the model is the key to the story and yet seemingly have nothing to say, demoting them purely to appearance. Tim Walkers spread for Vogue Italia in 2002 shoes this in a more ironic light17, using mannequins in place of models and placing them in typical scenarios. The viewer is only alerted to the irony when they realise the mannequins are just legs. This highlights the way models are used to portray garments rather than personality and illustrates perfectly how a portrait differs because of the essential subject. Irving Penn also said, in portrait photographer there is something more profound that we seek inside a person15 and where he sees this to be mutually exclusive to personality I think they work together. The more personality shown by someone within a portrait the more we are able to get from them.
One of my photos from my final shoot
Conclusion If you think about the number of times you look in a mirror everyday, or see your reflection compared to how many times you are seen by other people, it becomes clear just why identity is such a hard thing to grasp. There are certain angles you may never see yourself from, in the same way there are certain aspects of your identity and self that you may never realize, but that other people can and will see constantly. Being unable to grasp our own identity without a clouded view means that being able to summarize our own core beings we have a natural curiosity and a huge vested interest into discovering the true nature of our personalities and self. However, it comes down to the fact that other people will always have more say on our identity than we do ourselves. Portrait photography is an important medium in relation to identity because its a way of showing the individual things about themselves that they may not realize. Even if the subject holds back from the photographer, its their job to portray something that they see as true, highlighting features that they are aesthetically drawn too. The photographer plays an important role of bringing aspects of personal identity and how the individual is perceived, together into a unified image thats appealing in an artistic way as well as showing the viewer and the subject themselves something new. Although portrait is seen as one of the most traditional areas of photography I wanted to explore it because I think, especially in modern society, it has become one of the most attractive mediums because it says so much about us. As a culture so obsessed with us, portrait appeals to our need to photograph ourselves show ourselves to others and make them think something. The most important thing to me is that the portraits I produce evoke some sort of reaction in the viewer. I have chosen to do this by provoking reactions in the subjects themselves because I think something like a smile or a raw sense of emotion, when captured and displayed well can be extremely affecting. The main aim of photography is to make people think something because of that theyve seen and although portrait photography could be said to mean more to the subject than the viewer, as Ive explored, I think that every aspect has something equally important to say. What makes portrait photography so intriguing is wanting to know exactly whats going on in someones mind and just because of a photographer decides to capture someone does not mean that you can/ However, trying to guess is, to me, what makes a portrait photograph so captivating.