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Tuesday, March 7, 2017


This is a very interesting discussion over on ToP, but not in the way you might think.

What we have here is a portrait of Vladimir Putin. What can we say about it, objectively? It's high contrast. The man is apparently making eye contact with the photographer. He appears conscious of being photographed although he appears to be photographed with at least a longish lens so it's not a sure thing. His face appears relaxed. He appears tired, as compared with other photographs, but that may simply be a combination of the light and the relatively high contrast treatment emphasizing "bags" under the eyes. Objectively, it is almost startling in its blankness. The background is vaguely military, but we can't really make out definitively. In the west we might reasonably interpret the head-tilt as a "seriously? You're photographing me?" gesture, but we must accept that a) our cultural referents may be off here, b) Putin may not even have been aware of the camera, and c) even in New York City, this expression is not definitive. It could be Putin's resting face.

Now read the comments. Holy crap.

Consider what we actually know about Putin, as opposed to the various constructs various aspects of various media, variously controlled by various governments. He's ex-KGB, which likely means he's not a particularly nice guy. He went to University. He's old enough to have a career that bridges the USSR's dissolution.

Media constructs paint him as the devil, as a powerful leader, as an assassin, a ruthless killed, a brilliant politician. The west, in particular, resolutely demonizes him, occasionally in ways that are transparent knee-bending to western political interests. (pro-tip: the Crimean adventure is much more complicated than the western press makes out, and it's not actually all that clear that Russia/Putin is in the wrong). The Russian press, which we can observe sort of second hand, seems to be painting him equally improbably, but in the positive. It's certainly possible that he is evil incarnate, or not a nice fellow at all, I don't know. The point is, this is not information that is available to any of us. It is deliberately concealed and obfuscated on all sides.

And yet, confronted with a remarkably bland portrait of the man, a bunch of various westerns are happy to read in, basically, the narrative the media has spoon fed them for the last decade or so. To be blunt, this is ridiculous and naive.

But it is exactly what we do with portraits in particular, and photographs in general. We bring our own massive freight of ideas, our own history, and we project madly onto the picture. A tabula rasa like Turnley's portrait is a wonderful canvas for the careless to project stuff on to, especially when we have such a rich conception of the subject, as we do in this case.

The gap between what's actually in the picture (virtually nothing) and what we think we know about the subject (sufficient material for several long novels) is practically unprecented here, and therefore provides us with a really great case study of how people react to photos.


  1. Ah, and I thought I was the only one not being overly impressed by that image...

  2. Glad to see your comment on this because I was kinda scratching my head after reading the original on ToP.

  3. Top-down processing has a lot to answer for.

  4. This time, I didn't bother to read the comments at TOP. I'm glad now that I didn't. What's a sceptic to do these days, anyway?

  5. It's not just the image which has no substance, it's the written piece that goes with it too. A very odd post indeed.

  6. It is an interesting portrait, I don't think it is an excellent one though just good or OK or what have you. With some one like Putin or Trump or The Queen it has to be considered that when looking at a portrait we are not just looking at that portrait without baggage. When looking at any fairly well known persons portrait we have a history of all the media representations of them hat we have seen along side our opinions of them that are somewhat based on what we have been told. So to us in western nations Putin is seen as a "monster" figure and any portrait of hime will contain an subliminal ugliness. A portrait of Princess Diana on the other hand will be looked through a lens of her constructed "Saintliness" and innocence. Neither will be a true representation of the person, we know of the person what we have been told and what information we have access to, to those that know either Diana or Putin it could well be a totally different thing, the associate of Putin may well feel him to be a kind and caring person and the associate of Diana may have found her to be a totally self centred arrogant monster.

  7. That photo is the perfect empty vessel into which we can pour our preconceptions. Most photos (try to) tell you something. This one invites you to make your own narrative. I admire it for that reason.
    Then, just go look at those lovely Fred Herzog pictures.

  8. I was struck by the heavy handed post processing, especially the whites of his eyes look completely over cooked. The tonality of his skin is just so wrong. That's what bothered me. Other than that, there is not much to grab on to, but then Putin is probably an expert poker player with a face that is hard to read on purpose. Out of context, it's a photo of a man with a blank expression taken with a long lens. It's hard to connect to.

  9. Thank you! I had similar thoughts as I read the article and the comments.

    Now I'm far from being a fan of Putin, nor do I want to live in his incarnation of Russia - but the concerted agitation and propaganda against him and Russia in our media is downright scary, isn't it?

    Best, Thomas

  10. The commentators over at TOP seem to have this image in mind: http://www.platonphoto.com/gallery/portraits/politics/vladimirputin/

  11. Here is what struck me about that picture: the guy looks feminine! (And tired. And Eastern European.)