I'd like to elicit people's thoughts on what portraiture is about.
Yesterday, I was reading Ansel Adams's book Examples. In the course of a discussion on his portrait of Carolyn Abspacher, Adams says:
Then this, a page later:...I had a strong conviction that the most effective photographic portrait is one that reveals the basic character of the subject in a state of repose, when the configurations of the face suggest identity and personaliity... I am still of this persuasion; the usual "candid" photograph is but one moment of the subject's lifetime, a fragment usually related only to the artifact of the shutter's action... Occasionally an image of a passing expression can represent a broad aspect of the personality, but it is rarely a complete portrait. (p. 36)
This is the photograph of O'Keefe and Cox that Adams says is not a portrait: http://www.anseladams.com/index.asp?...OD&ProdID=2233My picture of Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox is not, in my opinion, a portrait but a rewarding record of a valued moment and engaging personalities.
I have also been looking at Richard Avedon's portraits. I'll call them portraits, but I don't think that Adams would. They strike me as an extension of Avedon's work as a fashion photographer. He plays director, and casts his subjects in a role. For example, his brutal portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Or his American West series, where it seems to me that Avedon used his subjects as the raw material for a larger artistic scheme. One can see the same thing in some of Karsh's work. He manipulated Churchill, albeit in a way that suited Churchill's image, but is his photograph a portrait in the sense that Adams used the word? Probably not. Did he do to Churchill what Avedon did to the Windors, but to benign rather than malicious effect? I think so. If Adams is right, none of the works of Avedon and Karsh to which I've referred are portraits. They are something else; what, I'm not sure.
I have a book of Paul Strand's work that features his Young Boy, Gondeville, France on the cover. As far as I can tell, this is widely seen as his most arresting portrait, but why is that? Is it because of something that Strand did, or is it due to his subject's drop-dead good looks? Is it a portrait, or a splendid photograph of a pretty youth?
I have the sense that environmental portraits are much more likely to capture "the person", if that is what portraits are supposed to do, than traditional shoulder and head shots. Maybe that's why I think that Paul Strand's photograph of Georges Bracque convinces me as a portrait in a way that his Young Boy does not. I can imagine Strand wanting to capture Braque's casual but elegant dress, and looking into the corner of his ground glass to make sure that the crab was in the frame, and ensuring that his exposure would capture the paraphernalia of what appears to be Braque's studio. I get the same sense of context, and supporting layers of meaning, from some of Arnold Newman's portraits.
But at bottom, I am skeptical of the whole idea that the purpose of a portrait is to capture "the person". If this is true, it follows that a portrait should be judged on whether it succeeds in this function, yet the judgment can't be made without intimate knowledge of the subject. I'm pretty sure that the Winston Churchill in Karsh's portrait isn't the "real' Winston Churchill, yet it is still a fine photograph. And is it not arrogant for a photographer, who usually knows very little about his subject apart from perhaps the subject's reputation, to claim to capture the subject's "personality" or "inner being"? I think that Avedon did the honest thing, and abandoned the pretense.
There is a practical reason why I am interested in this discussion. I'm about to embark on a photographic project about the community where I live. I have to decide what role, if any, portraiture has in this project, and, if it has a role, how to go about making the portraits. I've never done a portrait in the sense that Adams uses the word, and I'm not sure that I believe in what he claimed to do. My photographs of people, such as the one below from what is known here as a kitchen party, are what Adams would regard as the capture of a moment, and if I'm going to haul out the large format camera, and do something more formal, I need to get clear in my head what I'm trying to achieve by doing so: