Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Portraiture, Richard Brilliant

Portraiture by Richard Brilliant, pub by Reaktion books; ISBN 978-0-948462-19-1

Rarely has a reference book given me so many ideas to think about. Normally I would look to fiction to provide me with concepts regarding the human condition, Chekov, Dickens, Murakami etc. Brilliant's book has four chapters and 174 pages that are liberally laced with illustration and illumination. I have included a thought of his in a previous post as it chimed with my thoughts on the fictive and non-fictiveness of a portrait, whether it can hold the essence etc. of a subject and reading this I found myself being reassured - maybe that's the wrong word - that it wasn't an isolated thought, for example:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, standing in front of the launching chains of the 'Great Eastern', 1857...
Howlett, Robert (1831-58)
Private Collection - Bridgeman

This is quite a famous photograph, and despite the limitations of reproduction here, Howlett's view of the "great man" is quite easily found on the web at a larger scale for easier viewing. However what I did find interesting was Brilliant's use of the language when coming to describe this image: "In this regard, Brunel appears like an actor playing a part, the part of the "great engineer". But this is not a part he puts on or off like an actor on the stage; rather, the part is a permanent aspect of his being, of his identity, from which he cannot and, if properly portrayed, should not be parted. In this portrait of Brunel, the engineer, the impersonation is so complete that there is no other "Brunel". p99
Brilliant discusses identity and how we all "impersonate" how we all do it deliberately, and sometimes sub-conciously, but in a portrait more determinedly so. I can identify with this proposition in my notes from the book I say "There is a restriction that is offered by "a" portrait, in that that it is only "one" view. The same can be clearly said about a landscape, but a portrait taps into the viewers psychological appreciation of the subject, the more so if the subject and viewer are known - EVEN IF THE KNOWLEDGE IS A ONE-WAY STREET > AGAIN KARSH'S CHURCHILL" (see over re: Daniel Webster) - I decided not to scan my notes as they are barely legible, the Webster reference is in regard to:

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) c.1851 (daguerreotype)
Southworth, Albert S. (1811-94) & Hawes, Josiah (1808-1901)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,...Bridgeman
"In respect of portraits of people from the past who become part of history Brilliant states "Therefore, the Daniel Webster in the photograph did not always exist, although some changeable being bore this name and eventually became the person we know"" p59.

More notes:

So, question!  How do you project different character references/sides of the sitter?

Identity vs denotation

The use of a name - denoting a sitter 

The "face" - which face? The face we want to share; the face we want to hide, the face we "put-on" ???

Well you can see why I didn't choose fine art! Brilliant talks a lot about identity, about impersonation, about acting and about masks. The mask is an intrinsic metaphor on the stage, actors apply a face to perform.

At times during an amateur production, if they are lucky or have worked hard to achieve it, the players will "become" the part. That is to say they will leave their own life behind and adopt the personna of the "part" they are playing. I am sure that professional actors experience this all the time. It is a real "feeling" as you emotionally don the attire of the part, the audience can also experience it as they feel drawn through the fourth wall. It is less about impersonation more about the adoption of the character, how they would walk and talk, how they would think and react, how they would present themselves in the situation provided for them by a script. I can see what Brilliant meant when describing Howlett's photograph of Brunel. Brunel is "the great engineer" it is a part he has adopted and become and from which he can never be part(ed).

The actor can of course be parted from the role, from the part he or she has been playing. The drawings above are meant to depict my thoughts regarding masks. I feel a tremendous empathy towards the notion of masks. I feel as if I have adopted them all my life, the one that I show to the world - even and especially from when I was a child I had the need to create a mask - and the one that I revealed to me, that what was(is) me.

The book centres on the portrait as a whole medium, not just photographs, and in fact photography as a medium isn't that prevalent. It discusses the role of the portrait and the relationship of the viewer to the sitter, the sitter to the viewer and of the question of identity of both in todays world. And apart from ripping me wide open I have found it very worthwhile. So I wonder why with this abundance of ideas gained from this book and my thoughts around it all am I feeling so low about my ability to carry any of them through to any meaningful conclusion.


  1. John - I was struck by your penultimate sentence which sounds painful. My guess is that you're assimilating everything you've read and issues raised. It could take some time to digest and reassemble so please be gentle with yourself. You're a very good photographer and I trust you will carry your ideas through.


  2. Thanks Catherine, there is a bit of pain as I feel my photographs are a bit one dimensional; maybe I'm forcing things a bit too much. I have set up a few sessions over the next week or so with different people as well as the the "play" and hopefully that will release things a bit