Beware photographic portraits


Portraiture is the most duplicitous of all photographic genres. Not only is the deceit calculated, it is known to all parties in advance.

This situation arises because there are four people in every portrait. There is the person the subject tries to project, the person they really are, the person the photographer is trying to present and, finally, the person the viewer thinks they are seeing. While they may not know each other personally, each is aware of the others’ existence.

Of course, every portrait tells us that this person was present in a particular place at a specific time, that they were surrounded by these objects and wearing those clothes. These are the descriptive facts before us.

But people are inclined to think a portrait is capable of revealing much more. Even sophisticated viewers are susceptible to the belief that portraits somehow communicate some essential quality about the person in the photograph.

In the case of cultural icons, we want to believe Steve McQueen was composed and cool at all times, that Audrey Hepburn was always elegant and demure, or that James Dean was a tortured soul. We want to believe despite knowing that such celebrities conspire with photographers to mytholgise their public selves. 

Romantically (or naively), some people continue to believe the ‘real’ identity of a person, perhaps even their soul, can be captured in a portrait.

The fact is portraits are inherently unreliable. Sontag said photographs represent “inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy” (On Photography, p.23). In the case of portraits the invitations are extended to the subject, photographer and viewer. It is, consequently, impossible to separate fact from fantasy in a photographic portrait.

If I seem to be over thinking the nature of photographic portraits it’s because I recently spent a concentrated period of time making new portraits on the streets of various Indian cities. Reflecting on these new images has reminded me of the disconnect between the power of the images and the fleeting nature of the circumstances in which they’re made.

Each portrait ‘session’ – brief encounter would be more accurate – lasts less than thirty seconds.  As a result, there can be no pretence of veracity on the part of these images. I do not know the subject as a person or have any real knowledge of the circumstances of their lives.  I can only judge their character from the way they interact with me (briefly) and surmise tentative fragments about their lives from their appearance and the places where I encounter them.

However, notwithstanding their weaknesses as statements about an individual’s identity, these images do possess a power as photographs of everyman (or women).

Arnold Newman once noted “the successful portrait also bears the personality of the photographer; otherwise it is not an interpretation but just a record.” 

I am comfortable with the idea that my own interpretation of the subject results in them appearing to be noble, powerful, confident, strong, funny, happy, wise, etc. They may really possess these qualities – I don’t direct them to appear so – but I really don’t know.

All I do know is that I aim to portray the people who agree to be photographed in a positive way, irrespective of the material circumstances of their lives. 








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