Thursday, July 29, 2010

the portrait : view from across the channel

Henri Cartier-Bresson has commented that the portrait is one of the most difficult kinds of photograph to make and recounts that when he photographed the American poet Ezra Pound, they sat and looked at each other for an hour and a half saying nothing during which time Cartier-Bresson made only 4 photographs, of which only one photograph was worthwhile.

Roland Barthes in "Camera Lucida" writes quite extensively about the portrait and I find his views worth considering if only because they collude with my own experiences.  He describes the photographic portrait as an “imaginary analogy” that is “full of extravagance” (I would prefer the word “exuberance” and perhaps this might be a more sympathetic translation of the author’s original intent!?).

He talks about the basic “lineaments of truth” within the photograph that in a portrait may refer “to the subject’s identity, an absurd purely legal, even penal affair; likeness gives out identity “as itself” whereas I want a subject – in Mallarme’s terms – “as into itself eternity transforms it.” Likeness leaves Barthes “unsatisfied and somehow skeptical”.

He is looking for something “more insidious, more penetrating than likeness” and writes that “the Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.”

He goes on to say that “The Photograph is like old age: even in its splendor, it disincarnates the face, manifests its genetic essence.” Hence, “Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well”.

In photographic portraiture, I find myself trying to represent the face behind the mask; this may sound like a rather vague concept and the fact that it is not easy to define, Barthes’ refers to it as “beyond simple resemblance”, emphasizes the obstacle the photographer faces.

One needs not just likeness but an air; not just evidence but an exclamation!

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