Friday, December 17, 2010
What is a "Portrait?"
Copyright Yousuf Karsh
Could you tell by this portrait that Ernest was a tortured soul and would come to kill himself just 4 years later?
Merriam Webster: picture; especially : a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face.
Wikipedia: A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person...
In light of some recent features, contests, and shows I've read about, I've been thinking about what defines a "portrait," especially in light of the fact that I consider one of my series an anti-portrait series, in which I place the subjects far away from the lens or partly hidden so that they do not dominate the scene and can hardly be recognized. It is my belief that what it means to be an individual is so complex that a portrait could never come close in the slightest to explaining what it truly means to be that individual and inhabit their universe but I'll spare you my artist statement right now.
In discussing religion or the existence of God, the most important thing you can do is to first define God and then go on from there discussing the existence or absence of such. There's nothing more frustrating that having the person you are discussing this with say, "Well, God is the Universe" or "God is energy."
No, the universe is the universe and energy is energy. There's no need to call either God. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion gives a pretty fair definition from which to initiate a conversation about "God" in that it seems to follow most religious believer's beliefs and can serve as a good starting point to a debate:
"a personal God who is the creator of the universe, who is interested in human affairs, and who should be worshipped."
Only once both parties have agreed on a definition of what is to be discussed, can you have a productive discussion. So why does the photo community seem to have no definition for a portrait?
What first got me thinking about portraits seeming to lack a solid definition was Flak's 100 Portraits selection. When I first looked through the selection I found myself thinking, "But a lot of these aren't portraits."
A close up of a mouth/teeth, someone's back, an x-ray of a sculpture, the top of someone's head shot from above, the side of someone's head obscured by their winter hat with just a nose and hint of an eye sticking out, a person's silhouette, back-lit so that no features are recognizable.
There's no denying the taste of the selection here - they are all excellent photos, but to me these are not portraits. Were I a magazine editor having sent you out on assignment to shoot someone's single portrait for an article, I would consider these failures and send someone else to re-shoot.
Today in my inbox I received the results of Center's Portraits competition. Juror Rodney Smith, a fine photographer in his own right, chose this photo as the winner:
Copyright Leo Mendonca
As you can see, it is an appropriated (in that the shot of the woman was taken by another photographer) fashion shot billboard on the side of a building. A portrait of a building or an appropriated portrait? I don't know but it strikes me as an odd winner. Then again, I didn't see any of the other entries.
Then yesterday, Joerg called Simon Burch's series of mixed landscapes and portraits, Under a Grey Sky, a "beautiful portrait of Ireland." It is indeed a beautiful series but can you take a portrait of a place? Of a car? Of a building? Of an apple?
How far can we stray? Can we call a picture of a finger be a portrait or a picture of a shirt (back of the head is the most annoying, though)? It's a slippery slope and then at some point a picture of a watering pot becomes a "portrait" of the person who uses it or a picture of an American flag becomes a "portrait" of all Americans, present and past.
It's an interesting question and I'm not sure I have the definitive answer but I'd be curious to hear what others think. What is a portrait?
Posted by J. Wesley Brown at 10:22 AM