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February 25, 2004

Two (or three) Takes on Contemporary Portraiture

Today, I thought I'd be linking innocuously to some online magazines of note...since I know I've been fixated on offline publications, and harping on the problematic nature of viewing images online. I've gotten a couple of thoughtful emails indicating that online options can be pretty good, and I do plan to respond to those..

But I read two articles today that reflected on the state of contemporary portraiture, and came across two different approaches from contemporary artists, Elina Brotherus and Loretta Lux, that got me thinking. What stimulated my thinking, in particular, was an outstanding essay by William Ewing in the current issue of Next Level (an UK based photography journal).

An excerpt:

"Traditionally in photography, as in popular culture, the face has been considered the primary site and marker of individual identity. The photographer Paul Graham recently summed up this deeply rooted belief when he defined portraiture as 'one of the most profound things that one can do...to simply and truly see someone, and express their sentience. To reflect the inner self through external appearance.'

The new 'face' photography contests this assumption: 'simply and truly' is seen as touchingly naive. They dismiss as myth the belief (fervent though it is) that a successful portrait captures or reveals the essence, the inner being -- the soul of the subject. Moreover, they take issue with the idea that a portrait is, by definition, a credible likeness of an individual; they are too aware of the range of manipulative procedures that stand between the subject and the image. While it is true that manipulation has always been a factor in portraiture, the computer has made seamless manipulation easy, fast and cheap, and home, as well as office-based -- in other words, universal. Doubt is everywhere apparent: Iraqis scorn the pictures of Saddam's sons as 'American fabrications'; Americans scoff at pictures of Saddam during the war - 'body doubles'. Cynicism is standard fare for produces and consumers of images....

...the producers of the new 'face imagery' (for want of a better term, any term must encompass photographers and artists that use the camera) construct their work in a spirit of scepticism, founded on a belief that illusions and falsehoods (or rather half-truths and half-lies) abound. They have broken with the faith, so to speak, of 'conventional face value'. As Baudrillard has put it, 'photography is our exorcism; primitive society has its masks, bourgeois society had its mirrors, we have our images."


Elina Brotherus, Suite Francaises 2

There are all so many ways this discussion could be extended, and indeed, it stimulated my thoughts because of the journey I've taken myself in terms of the portraiture I engage in, and the portraits I tend to admire these days. My early portraiture professors had a very classical style that guided them in their instruction, heavily influenced by Yousuf Karsh and Arnold Newman, and old Masters in painting...it was all about beautiful light and flattering the subject as much as possible... while engaging the subject in order to get at some "essence" (as the article above indicates).

Other teachers I've had, though, along with more exposure to contemporary photography and art (not to mention the bombardment of images in mainstream news and celebrity culture) have made me more aware of the limitations of such classical approaches, and I tend to apply a more postmodern reading these days to images of people. I still enjoy classically done portraits for particular subjects, but it's possible to engage people in different ways to produce different types of portraits...and yes, with the best contemporary portraitists, it is possible to enjoy the different levels a portrait operates at -- the way it can provide insights about subject, photographer, relationship between the two, and the image-making process generally-- and this enjoyment can happen on an intellectual *and* emotional level.


Elina Brotherus, Self-Portrait

Featured in the same issue of Next Level are the images of Elina Brotherus, a Finnish photographer who achieved recognition early in her career for her interestingly romantic, yet distanced self-portraits documenting different stages of her life (marriage, divorce, learning French, not wanting sex). Her early self-portraits were more "in the tradition" of self-portraiture that is raw and revealing, but as she has progressed in her career, she's combined her self-portraits with abstract landscapes and photographs of interiors to add other dimensions to her portraiture reflecting her concerns as an outsider in different countries.

Brotherus' latest project, The New Painting, is actually less about direct portraiture, and more about the relationship between photography and painting and between people and the landscape...she positions subjects within vast landscapes and makes witty allusions to modernist and surrealist paintings.

The connections between painting and photography are significant and unfortunately, can be often overdone. Which brings us to Loretta Lux, who has gained significant cachet in the contemporary photography world with her weird and wonderfully compelling manipulated portraits of children. Lux's style didn't really grab me at first when I saw it online, as I have a rather ingrained skepticism of digitally manipulated work, but she was one of the few contemporary photographers to earn significant buzz at AIPAD, and upon viewing the actual prints, I could see why. Lux employs a light touch with her digital manipulation, her background in painting definitely shows (in a good way), and at times, it doesn't even seem like anything has been done.


Lois No. 1 by Loretta Lux

There's a fine article in the current Village Voice by Vince Aletti on Lux's current exhibition at the Yossi Milo Gallery. An excerpt:

"Compared to the elaborate manipulation involved in Jeff Wall's, Nick Knight's, or Yasumasa Morimura's work, Lux's computer-enhanced images are modest, and that's part of their appeal. With their solitary, doll-like figures and simple settings, they deliver an immediate hit of pleasure, but just as quickly undermine it. The longer you look at Lux's photos, the more uncomfortable you become. These lovely, grave children, with their porcelain skin and vintage clothing, are as hollow and idealized as automatons. Strangers in a strange land (whose model citizen might be Haley Joel Osment's helplessly anxious android in A.I.), they're all the more unsettling for being so familiar, so unassuming, and so lost."

Which I think cuts to the heart of what makes the best contemporary portraiture so worthwhile...the ability to keep you looking, to invoke pleasure, and yet to imply or suggest distance, unknown spaces, and to invoke questions. Of course, with other contemporary portraits, the equation is sometimes turned on its head...it's not pleasure, but revulsion that's provoked at first when certain subjects or subcultures are captured, but a certain kind of beauty then starts to creep in with repeated viewings.

Many have made the connection between Loretta Lux and Rineke Djikstra (including Joerg at Conscientious last year), because both combine an eye for the vulnerabilities in their subjects with a more distanced (but not cold) observational approach. I haven't seen a really good collection of Djikstra's work on the Web in one place (it seems to be scattered in multiple places), but the latest issue of ARTnews on the newstand has a very good profile on her.

Whatever one thinks about the art market and postmodern portraiture generally, there's something in the peculiar distance of Brotherus (even at her most emotional) from her environment in her self-portraits, and in the empathy and observational intensity of Lux's and Djikstra's portraits, that turns heads in unexpected ways. In the case of Lux and Djikstra, the results are certainly ringing big bells at cash registers with art collectors...and more importantly, they're also gripping people who normally don't give a thought to portraiture in general, documentary, postmodern or otherwise.


Coney Island, N.Y., USA, July 9, 1993, by Rineke Djikstra

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It's quite amazing to see how portrait photography follows trends, almost like fashion, and how photographers go back to what people have done before. A lot of Dijkstra's work is amazingly similar to what August Sander did - albeit in b/w.

Posted by: Joerg at Feb 25, 2004 11:00:13 AM