Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Photograph as Portrait of the Photographer

One of the pieces of fiddle-faddle that gets tossed around now and then is that a piece of art is in some useful sense a portrait of the artist. I take this to mean that a piece of art gives the viewer the sense that they know or understand the artist. This sense could be the result of actual information about the artist contained in the piece, or because the piece simply creates the impression in the viewer's mind that they know or understand the artist. It may be worth reading this prior post since some of the ideas there are informing my thinking here. Particularly the notion of a successful portrait as creating the illusion that we understand the portrayed.

The only factual information about the artist really conveyed by a piece of art is this:
I chose to make this.

This is pretty thin as a portrait. A body of work may convey more information, as a body of sort of anthropological evidence. Even this requires context to make much sense of, however. Suppose a photographer made 100s of photographs of eggs. Do we conclude that the photographer really liked eggs? Is there a fetish or obsession involved? Perhaps the photographer simply knew a gallerist or collector who really liked eggs, or perhaps the photographer happened to live on an egg farm. In the end, even a body of work can only inform a factual portrait of the artist. The portrait itself can only truly be made by the hard work of biography.

Perhaps, though, what is meant is that a great work of art creates in the viewer the illusion of understanding the artist. It invokes in us the sense that we do understand or know the artist, in some way. Whether our understanding is accurate or not seems irrelevant, the point here is simply that this idea is created in our minds.

What follows might feel like an exhausting of all possibilities, but really it's just me hacking my way through some ideas. There may well be possibilities that elude me entirely.

If we postulate a direct evocation of "the artist" by the piece of art, there has to be something in the work that evokes the artist. We have essentially no semiotic machinery that points to "Bob The Photographer" (we do have semiotic machinery that points to well known artists, more on that in the sequel), so there's really no way that a photograph can create the idea of Bob in our minds. Neither do we have much of anything that points to the more general "The Artist" beyond the obvious fact of the piece itself, which certainly implies the artist. We're at risk of swerving back in to I chose to make this territory here. If the work cannot create an idea of "The Artist" it's going to have a tough time creating the idea of "The Artist Has Suffered" or whatever it is we imagine we know about the artist.

The trouble is that art can evoke universals pretty well, that's what semiotics is all about. Symbols have a pretty tough time expressing specifics, for that we tend to rely on representations of the specific thing. If Bob takes a picture of himself, then by golly, portrait of the artist. Without Bob in the frame, Bob's presence is pretty hard to justify. Well known artists are arguably, as noted, universals which can be evoked by symbols.

On the other hand, I think I can, by squinting a bit, accept that a piece of art can evoke a first person sensation as opposed to second or third person sensations. That is, if we let say suffering stand in for all universal themes, we can imagine that a piece of art might be able to evoke distinctly:

  • Suffering in general.
  • His suffering.
  • Your suffering.
  • My suffering.

Simple adjustments of point of view, placing the camera here rather than there, might well produce the personalized effect of My Suffering, versus His Suffering, for instance. So while we can't necessarily get Bob The Photographer in the frame, or even really The Artist, we might well be able to get a generalized notion of Me into the frame. Let's set this aside and save it for later.

What I suspect a lot of people mean when they imagine they see the artist in the work is simply a distinctive style. They feel that this work is recognizably someone's work, and they feel that they might recognize other work by the same someone. Especially for a well known artist, this feels very very much like the work containing a portrait of the artist. This is wrong. What's going on here is that we already contain a portrait of the artist. We know a little about Edward Weston from this and that, we read a thing in the New Yorker on him, etc. When we see a picture of a green pepper, this is associated with all that information. We see the pepper, we feel a strong sense of knowing a bit about Edward Weston, and we will tend to associate the two. We will tend to think that somehow, Weston got part of his essence into the print. He didn't. All the picture does is poke some pre-existing semiotic machinery. The pepper is a pretty strong symbol that means Edward Weston, and which is connected to a cascade of other symbols and ideas.

Bob The Photographer does not have this luxury. The New Yorker has never profiled Bob, Bob has not had any shows yet, Bob is not well known. There is no semiotic machinery connected to Bob, except amongst Bob's friends (where the Weston effect may well occur, by the by).

If, when I see Bob's photographs, I feel that they are distinctive and that I might recognize other work by Bob, I might still say that I feel Bob's presence in the images. What I mean, though, is that I think these photographs have a distinctive style. Bob has made some choices about what to photograph, how to photograph it, and how to handle photographic problems in general, which choices feel like they might uniquely identify work by Bob. Well known artists, or at any rate recognizable artists, have such a distinctive style. This is how we recognize them, after all. This style becomes the symbol for the artist, which in turn triggers the semiotic machinery, which finally creates the sensation that one knows the artist through the work.

Note that what we think is a distinctive style when we see a single example of Bob's work could be a simple accident, or one of a dozen styles he works in.

If I see such a distinctive style in Bob's work, I might think that the work is a portrait of Bob, by analogy with other styles of well known artists. What I mean, though, is that if I already contained a useful portrait of Bob, this example of Bob's work would certainly evoke it. I don't think this is quite the same thing as the work portraying Bob.

So what? I don't know. I do know that there are at least two distinct things which might produce a sensation of portraitness, and that they seem to me to be pretty much orthogonal:

  • A first person point of view.
  • A distinctive artistic style.

I find neither one particularly satisfactory as an idea of a portrait of the artist. On the other hand, if what you're after is creating the illusion in the viewer's mind that they know you, the artist, these are ways in which you could accomplish that. It is not at all the same thing as revealing your own truth, but they are certainly ways to build a first person narrative or idea that the viewer could associate with you. In that sense, a portrait of the artist can be created, potentially one which feels real, one which might even be real. Such a portrait (like any portrait) is actually real only as a happy coincidence.

Ultimately, I don't think that a piece of art in and of itself reveals much factual about the artist. To the extent that it creates the illusion of understanding the artist as a person the effect is tenuous and second-order. There are enough other ways to talk about these effects that I don't think the use of the word "portrait" is really appropriate here either. In short, I cannot find any way in which I can comfortably interpret the idea that a piece of art is a portrait of the artist.

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