Wednesday, 28 December 2011


An entry started just before the Christmas break and concluded after the eating stopped!

Deciding to re-read and review some of my books on portraits and portraiture:

I plan on a continuing review of these works and update them as I go through the course with new thoughts and book reviews.

Bailey's Democracy, David Bailey, Thames and Hudson                          
Horst Portraits, Terence Pepper, NPG                                                        
Beaton Portraits, Terence Pepper - Roy Strong - Peter Conrad, NPG        
Beaton, Danzinger, Holt                                                                            
Angus McBean Portraits, Terence Pepper, NPG                                      
Some Women, Mapplethorpe, Bullfinch                                                     
Performance, Richard Avedon,  Abrams                                                    
40 years of Photography, JeanLoup Sieff,  Evergreen                                

Face, William A. Ewing, Thames and Hudson
Train your gaze, Roswell Angier, AVA Academia

Nan Goldin, Guido Costa, Phaidon

Lee Miller Portraits from a Life, Richard Calvocorescsi, Thames and Hudson

The first set of books/monographs all contain one thing in common, they are photographs of people who are aware of performance and how their "face" is a matter of their persona, their position in the world, their fame and fortune. The models were all used to being in front of the camera, in a studio, adopting a pose. Very few of the poses were "cropped head shots" and not many more were "head only", the majority by far were head and torso followed by full figure, and the reason of course is context. A significant number of the shots were publicity, be it a specific performance or general publicity, so including a contextual reference could only be achieved by widening the shot. This also applied to the surrealist images of McBean and Miller. I think the surrealists require a separate discussion and I hope to come to this later. Beaton's work is the most varied and innovative
Of all of the first set it was Bailey's Democracy that stood out. 143 images of nudes. Bailey instructed his models to stand on a spot about six feet in front of a 10 X 8 camera whilst he took about six monochrome (warm tone) images set against a white background and white floor and a very simple large flat lighting set up. Whilst not a typography as the individual poses are left to the models who, on a number of plates, have an air of being "exposed" about them, the consistency of image reproduction is extremely good. Incidentally the models for Bailey were, in the main, performers, but without the artifice of props, be they furniture or clothing what is revealed is is how comfortable they are (or are not) in their skin.

Lee Miller's work is a curious mixture of reportage/celebrity/experimental and of course WWII. Such a range of image making that I will probably come back to this in a separate essay. Which leaves Golding,  Ewing and Angier. Golding's work is well documented - a life lived in the viewfinder of her own camera, the context being her life, her passage through it and out the other end. Whether she intentionally relied on the prurience of the viewer or whether it was a psychological need perhaps only she will know, but there is a beauty in her honesty (I don't mean to damn this with faint praise!).

Ewing's "Face" is true to it's word; it is about the face. There are a plethora of photographers that Ewing employs to describe the various uses a face can be put to and I will return to them at a later date. A recurring motif running through the text is that of the mirror. The mirror as a physical thing, reflecting the (or our) image through to the recording plane, be it an emulsion or pixel. The mirror as a reflection of society - held up for our gaze. And the mirror to ourselves as viewers, holding us hostage to that gaze. It is the latter that I think is the most critical. It is often said that portraits betray something of the "personality", the "soul" of the sitter; but I am coming to the thought that it might reveal more about the viewer, or rather it might expose more about the viewer TO the viewer. In other words the pose of the subject (whether the subject is aware or not) can reveal various prejudices, preconceptions or other emotional responses to portraits that are revealed by the development of the relationship of the viewer to the image.

Consider these these two photographs of Ellen - I know which her mother favours - what do they reveal about me as a photographer and me as a viewer? I felt that even the positioning of the two images in the blog affected my response to them i.e. if they were transposed on the horizontal would they have a materially different resonance - looking away from each-other as it were?

Back to "The Face", a couple of quotations I thought were also very interesting - Ewing liberally scatters quotations in the body of the text:

"Look: this shows what retouching can do, 'said the photographer. 'But the retouched one does not look a bit like the woman who sat for it, 'I exclaimed. 'Of course not, 'replied the photographer. 'That's the beauty of it'"  The Photographic News, 1890

"What is the function of a portrait? What degree of manipulation is correct, acceptable, between the sitter and the photographer, and should art concern itself with accuracy? Shouldn't photography worry about that even more?" Richard Avedon 1993

"Composite portraits are absolute quackery! What next, composite landscapes?" The Photographic News, London 1888

I put the last one in for all the landscapists who are concerned with veracity! The prior two about manipulation talks to a concern I have had for some years and one that I have written about before. There is a notion abroad that "Photoshopping" is a modern idiosyncrasy for the digital age; well whilst the adjective may be modern the practise is as old as photography, and as old as portraiture as a genre. This does not of course negate the ethical issues surrounding the practise and I am sure I will return to this at regular intervals during this course.

The other reference book I am reading (for the first time) is "Training your gaze" by Roswell Angier. It is a very inspiring text and is challenging a lot of my personal views in portraiture, about what I think it is about, how my attitude and preconceptions need to be rethought. The book comes in about 10 sections with assignment suggestions in each - some of which I intend to attempt (time allowing). This is the only book that I am reading which is new to me for this course. I am slightly concerned about that as I realise that I may be coming to the course with a lot of preconceptions - but to my defence I suspect everyone has preconceptions.

As this is my first blog entry post-Christmas I thought I would list the books that Santa brought: Monographs by Model, Modotti, Siskind, Evans and Eggleston as well "The Family of Man" Steichens collection for the exhibition of the same name and "50 Photographers you should know". But the one that is by far and away the best present this year is "Andre Kertesz" by Michel Frizot/Anne-Laure Wannaverbecq published 2010 by Hazan and published as part of the "Mois de la Photo" in Paris, November 2010. It is a definitive work on someone I have felt for a long time as one of the great photographers.
With so much to read and digest after the excesses of the Christmas period I'm hoping to survive the New Year celebrations with some serious work on exercises, projects and assignments.

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