Friday, 15 October 2010

Questions of Representation - Feedback Appreciated.

One of the fundamental assertions originally made by the photographic portrait is a declaration of being a trace of the individual, the authentic presence of the person. According to Graham Clarke (The Portrait in Photography), this authenticity is problematic.

"The photograph displaces rather than represents, the individual. It codifies the person in relation to other frames of reference and other hierarchies of significance. Thus, more than any other photographic image, the portrait achieves meaning through the context in which it is seen".

This is why I have decided to strip these portraits of as much coding as possible. Clothes which might denote era, the style of the individual, the social group to which they belong, the persona they like to present to the world and so on are removed. We are left with the subject and a plain black background. To my mind this invites a different kind of viewing, a looking inwards to gather some sense of the essence of the individual. They meet the viewers gaze directly, and if I succeed in creating the right environment and conditions for the subjects, with a contained, settled sense of presence. So if there is a displacement here it is one of moving into a void, a socially constructed interpretation becomes impossible. We know nothing of their activity in the world, only that they have sat in front of the camera and looked into the lens.

Clarke goes on to say....

"Just as the photograph flattens physical bulk, so it also frames and crops-once again suggesting presence through absence. It consistently offers the promise of the individual through a system of representation which at once hides and distorts the subject before the lens. Thus the portrait's meaning exists within wider codes of meaning: of space, of posture, of dress, of marks, of social distinction. In short the portrait's meaning exists within a world of significance which has, in turn, already framed and fixed the individual. The photograph thus reflects the terms by which the culture itself confers status and meaning on the subject, while the subject as image hovers problematically between exterior and interior landscapes".

This leads me to ask the question, what does the empty void like space which the subject occupies itself represent. Can it be read as an invitation inwards? Do the obvious painterly comparisons to 17th century (and earlier) portrait styles evoke cultural notions of status and so forth and what does that word now mean in a postmodern context? Pierre Gonnord, whose work as we have established appeals hugely to me, utilises this same aesthetic device to create images of marginalized sections of society, the down and out, the addicted, the homeless, the itinerant. Attempting to be more critically engaged with that which inspires me, it can be said that there is a voyeuristic element involved with his work, in revealing in a dignified manner those whom we do not normally look at. Perhaps the beauty of the composition and lighting in these images and the removal from the difficult social context they inhabit makes this looking easier, less fraught with tension and bourgeoise guilt! We are not called to act through looking at his images, merely observe. I however do not read them this way, and see it instead as conferring a dignity to these people not usually afforded them in society and also a seeing of 'beauty' outside typical contemporary mores.

There is something that appeals to me about not making this project about one group or another; about a 'type' of person. A spectrum of individuals with the greatest conceivable degree of variation in looks, age, social situation and temperament perhaps is another way to avoid them being coded in a particular way, so that when viewed as a series they are clearly about the individual rather than the social group and in my idealistic world perhaps this might also conversely bring out something about the universality of the human condition.

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