Monday, January 7, 2019

Discussion of What is a Portrait or Self Portrait

I want to address my long held opinions on portraits and self-portraits because I hold some opinions which may not be in line with the majority.

Is It a Portrait? I just finished watching a You Tube video by Gavin Hoey where he examines the premise of a portrait. It was built on a conversation with a friend of his that was adamant that if you cover the eyes of the subject you lose the emotional contact with the subject and therefore the photograph would not qualify as a portrait. Gavin argued that it would still be a portrait. In order to examine his own feelings he set up a shoot where first he did a full face uncovered shot. Second, he covered the lower portion of the models face with a book, leaving the eyes showing. Third, he had the model pull a stocking hat down over the eyes leaving the lower nose and mouth visible. In this last shoot the model made several faces which did give a hint of personality.

After processing the images he still agreed that each was a portrait even though a portion of the face is not visible.

Before I go into my thoughts on portraits, what do you consider a portrait to be? Give it some thought before you continue.

Since people pictures is my thing, I have given this much thought for a very long time. Basically it boils down to a few simple philosophies…

All photographs of people are not portraits—even when they are the standard head and shoulders shots. For me to classify a photograph as a portrait it needs to tell me more about the person than simply their physical appearance. I require more for a picture of a person to be considered a ‘portrait’.

A large percentage of people pictures do not add any knowledge of the person beyond how they look. Those photographs I frankly do not consider to be portraits. They are simply pictures of people. Most now days are simply technical or lighting exercises. They are as much or more about the photographer than they are about the person in front of the camera. Distinguishing what I consider a portrait is not always easy, but I do insist that there be some added knowledge about the sitter.

To understand my thinking on this study the environmental portraits of Arnold Newman, Avedon's western portraits, Michelangelo's figure studies.

A portrait, in my not so humble opinion, does not actually require that an image of the person be visible in the photograph. That seems an oxymoron but let me tell where I developed this opinion.

When I was critiquing on PhotoNet there was a young man, mid to late thirties, Jerry Hazard, who posted many self-portraits for critique. I always enjoyed Jerry’s work because self-portraits are my favorite genre of people picture. Jerry’s were often pretty far out, very different. I like far out and different because they add a mental curiosity component to the photograph.

Many of Jerry’s self-portraits were nude. But one he posted really caught my attention because it was only his clothing spread out on the floor somewhat in the arrangement they would appear on his body were he wearing them. The arrangement was organized but appeared unorganized, as though they had been casually dropped there as he undressed. Jerry identified it as a self-portrait.

This strange photograph got me to thinking about what exactly is a portrait. I realized that Jerry’s arrangement of clothing, added to what I already knew of Jerry from his previous posts was very much a statement about himself and thus fell into my classification of portrait. We are frequently judged by our choice of clothing. In Jerry's case it was a pair of frayed bottom cutoff jeans and a tank top. Very much what you expect Jerry to wear. Even though you did not see Jerry, his presence as the naked guy in the room was much in evidence.

My favorite ‘self-portrait’ of myself is actually a composite of a piece of writing I did about myself along with the first photograph I ever took on my own; photographs I did of myself before and during my first marriage; highly manipulated photographs of a photograph I did of myself dressed in the shower toward the end of my first marriage; photographs Janet took of me nude; photographs of me on our sail boat; and a photograph I took of myself after Janet passed away. These images covered a period from the early 1960’s through probably 2011--a half century. Some of the photographs were presented with the snapshot borders popular when I was a kid, some were in slide mounts and some were presented as negatives. In all, it is of not only who I am—the person that assembled the images—but the images also talked about who I had been--how I appeared, what my interests were, things I found joy in. It is still an image that I am very pleased with. Even though it shows me at various stages of my life there is no one ‘portrait’ image—still to me it is very much a self-portrait.

Now I do not know what other people consider to define a self-portrait. We live in a ‘selfie’ world. You cannot go anywhere that you do not see people with selfie-sticks recording on their phones their presence in the world.

Also on PhotoNet I developed the following requirement for considering a photograph a self-portrait. I would suppose that saying self-portrait means that the photograph was taken by the person in the photograph. I do not hold to that strict of a requirement.

If an image is presented by the person shown in the photograph as a self-portrait, then under my definition, it is a self-portrait whether or not they themselves actually took the photograph. The assumption that I make here is that did the person in the photograph not consider the photograph to be a good and possibly accurate representation of themselves I doubt that they would present the photograph as a self-portrait. 

On the other hand, just because a person presents a photograph of themselves does not make it a self-portrait. If the photograph is presented as a photograph taken by someone else, then it is simply that—a picture of me that so-and-so took. It is in how the image is presented to an audience. Presented as a self-portrait equates to being a self-portrait.

The photographs that Janet took of me, both dressed and undressed, were very much collaborations. Regardless of which of us came up with the location, the poses, the theme; I consider those photographs to be self-portraits whether or not I was the one that tripped the shutter.

I am sure that many will disagree with my personal definitions of portrait and self-portrait. That is fine. They are definitions at work well for me.

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