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.

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?


Gabi said...

I had essentially the same thoughts when I saw the jury award announcement for the Center Portrait contest in my inbox today. Sometimes, even the term 'environmental portrait' (the baker in a remote corner of his bake shop, behind a monstrous kneading machine) make me cringe - not because they are necessarily bad photos, but because the person more or less plays the role of an extra in a scene - like those little plastic people used in architectural models. I like your thoughts about 'anti-portraits' though.

Unfortunately, I don't have a clear answer to your question. It's more of a gut thing for me what I would 'accept' as a portrait or what's debatable. The term 'portrait' is also frequently used in journalism and literature for a text 'about someone'. In general, I think a portrait should first and foremost be about a person. Not about a building (as in the case of the contest winner), not about an environment, and not about isolated body parts - unless they really tell the person's story.

Just my 2 ¢.

Leslie F. Miller said...

On the other hand, what about a person who defines himself by wide open spaces—such as an explorer who is the tiny tip on the top of a mountain? Isn't it still a portrait?

Suppose it's a farmer standing in a monstrous corn field? Or a real estate developer in a warehouse?

For me, it's not the definition of portrait but the purpose. Sometimes a portrait wants to look into a soul, look into a person's eyes. The person is a thinker or a business man or a shark.

But without a person in it, the picture is not a portrait. That's already a given in the definition of portrait.

And, as regards the winning photograph, I'd have disqualified it on the grounds that the photographer didn't shoot a portrait. He shot a building, plain and simple.

Gabi said...

@Leslie: Of course you can show people in context, and it's still a portrait. If the photo is primarily about the farmer: Portrait. If it's primarily about the corn field: Not portrait. As I said, it's mostly a gut decision for me.

Sally said...

Why do we always have to try to change the definitions of words to suit our whims? A portrait portrays a person (or possibly an pet)...this is a photo of a building which just happens to have a portrait on it. It's not, essentially, a portrait.

Darren said...

I think we have to consider the blankness of portraiture - Ernest Hemingway is completely emotionless in that portrait above and unless the viewer knows what Hemingway looks like, that portrait could represent any older man. Without being told that is Ernest Hemingway, that portrait means absolutely nothing. It becomes a dude in a sweater.
So how is that man any different from the building with the appropriated fashion shot covering it? If we photograph a person at Carnivale or some festival with masks, is that a portrait? Even the dictionary definition doesn't require the face be visible.
But both humans and buildings have history and longevity and, considering the tendency for blankness in portraiture, what is the difference?
I think a portrait is simply a representation of something. A subject is the only requirement, so perhaps a portrait is a study of a subject - and from that perspective, you certainly could have a "beautiful portrait of Ireland."

L said...

A portrait is that as long as its subject is the 'who' of the person photographed.

The person could be anywhere in the frame. Maybe you can't see their face or maybe they're doing something. If whatever they might be doing or however they're composed in the scene pulls the photo away from the person's 'who' then the portrait is failing.

The winning portrait in that competition is bad. What bugs me is that the first thing we all notice isn't the portrait itself or the skill or style of the photographer but the choice of the jurors. To me they hijacked a photography competition by choosing an odd winner not to honour the photographer but to draw attention to themselves and their strange choice: ME! ME! ME! Bugs me.

Sally said...

"So how is that man any different from the building..."

Really? You can't see a difference between Ernest Hemingway and that building?

I don't see that portrait of Hemingway as blank and emotionless at all. And with any portrait, if you don't know who the man is...then it's just a man. But there's a HUGE difference between a man and a building.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for starting this conversation... It's a topic that has been on my mind for some time. It's not enough to have a human being in an interesting photo to call it a portrait.

Indeed, I do detect a tense ambiguity in Hemingway's eyes in that portrait: a question, worry, something that characterizes him as a person. The photo definitely is about the "who" of the person.

As about the winning photo of this contest... Even if it is an appropriation, it's not an appropriation of a portrait. Advertising photography is not a representation of a specific person. It's the representation of a brand, a product, an experience. It's an interesting photo, but not a portrait. Not about knowing someone.

And why should we care about classification? It is important to have a working definition, if, first, it's a characteristic required in the call for entries of a contest. But also it's about the photography's interest in a specific human being. Knowing a specific human being.

Blake Andrews said...

I think a successful portrait should probably convey some information about the person photographed. It can be something about their interior life or about them physically. It doesn't matter but there should be something there. The best portraits go beyond this and tell something about the environment or broader world of the person. Sander, Disfarmer, Arbus, Avedon, and all the best portraitists do this. Their photos convey a sense of the person and tell something about their life and times.

For me, the "portrait" of the lady on the wall doesn't do any of those things. Not only does it not seem to be a portrait, it isn't a very interesting photo. That's just my take.

J. Wesley Brown said...

@Daren - I desagree that a portrait is a "representation of something." Like Sally said, why do we change the definition of something to suit our whims? A still life is a representation of something. A product shot of a car is a representation of the car. They are not portraits.

@Chronotopist - I would agree that it's about knowing a little something more about a human being but I'd argue that that knowledge is still quite superficial compared to the totality of understanding what it is like to be that human being. Certainly, a shot with a person off in the distance tell us very little in most cases. I would not call a shot like that a portrait and venture to say it tell us very little about them and more about the place they find themselves in.

Wayne said...

A source I found valuable in answering this question is a book called "Matisse Portraits"

It's not a static definition, in the essays the book frames how this particular artist (and the society/artists he emerged from) viewed the different modes of portrait. Obviously family members were portraits, people who paid him that, at least for the time they sat for him were social equals were portraits. But are the many models he hired to be subjects, are those portraits? In some cases they are, in other cases they are rendered so abstract that you get to the landscape issue discussed here.

beebe said...

These kind of jury things are empty bullshit. I would ask you to stop asking these questions and just go out and do what you love best. The art world is shit. Follow the stink of what turns you on the most and don't bother with context. Context isn't really your concern. Context is the realm of those who a.) curate exhibitions and b.) those who pander to the curators of art exhibitions. Make work, enjoy it, get drunk and then go to sleep.

J. Wesley Brown said...

Beebe wins the award for best comment.

mithun said...

congrats! keep up the good work/this is a great presentation.

What an exciting experience!/Hilarious! Delightful! True!/wonderful stuff! thank you!

Alex Smith said...

Excellent post.I want to thank you for this informative read.

William S. Hart High School Senior Portraits

Steve Grimes said...

@Darren - that seems to be an odd comment, that if you didn't know it was Hemingway, then you wouldn't know it was Hemingway, therefore it could be any "dude in a sweater". Well, um, yes you're right, so Karsh photographed him to help us understand who Hemingway was, what he looked like.

Isn't that the point - to portray a particular person at a particular moment, in such a way as to aid in our knowledge of that person?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I follow the general argument after the god part. It's perfectly possible and reasonable to include "the universe" as god, you'd simply integrate it into a larger metaphysical theory of how the universe interacts or constitutes such a god. There's no need to limit yourself to formal syllogistic logical statements "start at objective p, therefore q" when trying to describe a more complex interaction than that.

J. Wesley Brown said...

The blog is closed but I can't help myself on this one, Anon. Why should a rational person come up with a metaphysical theory that says the universe constitutes a god any more than one which says a strawberry constitutes a god? Keep in mind that we cannot be certain that the universe is everything there is and that the universe could be part of a larger metaverse for all we know. In any case, I find no need to call the universe god any more than I do a strawberry.

Unknown said...

I did a portrait of the Baseball player Vladimir Guerrero based on the statistics of his performance playing in the Major Leagues. To me a portrait is more about a person contribution to his/her profession and contribution to society.