And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 4 December 2010


Small studio portraits

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance: John Ford, 1962

We are all types. All of us can be fitted into categories that describe who we are, predict our behaviour and attitudes and are the first step towards others understanding who we are. This is nothing new. Marketing departments may have made a science of determining behaviour patterns based on disparate scraps of evidence but it’s a primal response to assess people based on first impressions, which are themselves a form of categorization.

The invention of photography changed a few things and one of them was that it gave ordinary people licence to create a permanent image of themselves that even others who the sitter was likely never meet in the flesh would form their opinions from. There are stories from the 1860s of people preparing themselves for hours before heading off to the studio for a CDV portrait. Before it was taken the photographer would discuss the desired props and backgrounds. Afterwards the print was taken to the retouching department where wrinkles and scars were carefully obliterated. The result was an image that friends would immediately recognize even though it was a fiction. The sitter was who she said she was yet somehow she looked taller and more elegant than in real life.

This ability of the camera to tell the truth while wrapping it up in deceptions has become the most powerful function of photography and we’ve never yet come up with a term to describe this dissemblance that the medium relies on.

Case in point: These are all small portraits of real people who sat for the camera and presented an image of themselves that was part truth, part invention. The most interesting aspect doesn’t have to do with trying to determine where fact ends and falsehood begins. It’s more to do with the question of why, when we face the camera, do we draw on types that are familiar and obvious? Why can’t we invent new types?

This has to do with the truth factor. No matter how thoroughly we glamourize ourselves, we still need to make our portraits identifiable. A man goes into the studio and asks to be made to look like a movie star. The photographer places the camera at a particular angle, the lights are set up, the man tilts his head one way and – snap – he is transformed. But the effect would be useless if that transformation was total. He needs people need to know it is still him - the short guy with mundane ambitions and the not so glamorous office job. If no one recognized him and thought he was carrying a snap of a Hollywood star in his wallet, well that would be tragic on several levels. The paradox is that in order to understand the sitter we need to think about the fiction they have invented. That they want to look like a certain type tells us more about them than any other visual clues.

Another point about the power of photography is that it is so easy to effect this transformation. One camera and a light source is all we need and it is done in less than a second. Thanks to photography we are all who we want to be.


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