Week 2 of the Art Photography course and a subject which I find difficult in photography, namely portrait photography and specifically whether these have a role in art photography. As the definition of what constitutes art photography as different from mainstream photography is (to say the least) a little hazy, this is clearly a matter of opinion. Since the best definition we have so far is that art photography is something that critiques and challenges the observer it is clear that portraits have just as much of a role in the medium as any other subject.
So what would be expected from an art photographer taking portraits? Probably not something that is pretty, pretty but more likely a realistic or even unflattering image of the subject, something which tells us about who the person is perhaps or challenges our preconceived ideas of what we would expect.
So looking at some art photographers who use the medium of portraiture:
Diane Arbus focused on the edges of society from the 1930′s onwards, notably circus performers, freaks and those who seem ugly or surreal. Her photographs are challenging and makes the viewer look more deeply into them. The one below is one of her most famous (and a copy sold at auction in 2005 for $408,000) and was a commissioned piece. The boy has a strange expression and is holding a toy hand grenade while his other hand is empty and in a claw like pose. He’d apparently started off with 2 grenades but had lost one during the day.
Her work has been displayed widely in art galleries and museums and highly acclaimed.
She is the central character in the film Fur, which starred Nicole Kidman (as Arbus) and Robert Downey Jr, so clearly her impact as a photographer extends well beyond her work.
Cindy Sherman has focused on self portraits throughout her photographic career, using costumes and imagery from films (in her early work) and later more abstract images, for example paintings. Like Arbus her work has been widely recognised and she holds the “honour” of having the photograph with the highest auction value ever. Seen below #96 sold for $3.89 million dollars at Christie’s.
Nan Goldin’s work focuses on the gay and transsexual community with New York and her images depict drug use, violent, aggressive couples and autobiographical moments. Many of her images have a grunge look and the grainy feel of the images, and the use of available light emphasises this feeling. Her work is notably sexual, and in fact it was one of her pictures, owned by Elton John, which was confiscated by British police when exhibited.
Sally Mann, continuing the series of female photographers, is best known for her large black and white photographs. The initial photographs were of her young children, then she later focused on landscapes suggesting decay and death. Many of the images of her children seem to be deliberately posed as if they are adults, which is challenging to the viewer. They are also highly posed, a result of the use of 8×10 large format cameras which take time to set up and actually take the photograph.
Bill Brandt, a British photographer, is perhaps best known in the context of portraits for his work in the 1930′s photographing all level of English society in the context of where they worked. This ranged from the Lord of the Manor to the scullery maid. This work was published in two books, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). This work later evolved into nudes, taking a different perspective on the human body to produce some unusual photographs.
Richard Avedon was originally a fashion photographer who did not conform to the standard technique of taking fashion photographs, where models stood emotionless and seemingly indifferent to the camera. Instead, Avedon showed models full of emotion, smiling, laughing, and, many times, in action. Avedon began to branch out and photographed patients of mental hospitals, the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, protesters of the Vietnam War, and later the fall of the Berlin Wall. This portraits over the years feature pretty much everyone who was anyone usually taken from a similar frontal position with whited out or plain backgrounds. He also created a book titled In the American West, which included 125 portraits of different people across the western US that seems interesting to him. Much of these people were miners, oil field workers, the unemployed, and teenagers between the years 1979-1984. He treated these subjects like he did the celebrities and powerful politicians he photographed, with great respect.
Nadav Kander, is a contemporary London based photographer. He made a series of images of those working with Barrack Obama during his election campaign (Obama’s People) which are not always flattering to the subjects. During the taking of these pictures he asked the subjects to bring an object with them as a way of composing themselves in front of the camera and the way they interact with the object tells a lot about their characters. He adopts a similar style to Avedon in the way that the people are portrayed against very plain white or grey backgrounds, the focus is very much on the subject.
The theme of all these photographers is clearly on the subject, the person being photographed, and they use different tools to bring that subject out. Some choose a clean background to make the person the only item in the photograph, while others prefer to bring them into context. All are trying to bring out some aspect of the personality of the individual in question and using their preferred “look” and techniques to do that.
Our assignment this week is something I dread, self portraits. One of the reasons to have a camera is make sure you’re the person taking the pictures to avoid being in them. So will need to get my thinking cap on to come up with a photograph that says something about myself. Fortunately next week is half term, so I at least have 2 weeks to get this sorted.