Wednesday, February 21, 2018

People Pictures

Another notion that I cannot shake.

I have this idea that, whatever else is or is not present in a picture of a person, you can instantly tell whether the photographer liked, disliked, or was neutral toward the subject. At least in that moment.

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I have noted in the past, it is instantly apparent that Walker Evans liked one of the families, and disliked the others. Amusingly, the one he liked was the one most despised by James Agee (who mostly liked the other families because he was convinced that all the women and girls wanted to have sex with him -- Agee was appalling).

Sally Mann, interestingly, strikes me as having a quite neutral attitude to her kids as she photographs them. She obviously loves her kids to bits, but somehow in that moment she seems quite distant. Not disdainful, but neutral.

Arbus seems to actively dislike her subjects.

And so on.

It's a sort of crazy notion, I cannot at all see what the mechanism would be, and yet, it seems perfectly clear to me.


  1. Maybe so. Harry Borden (UK portraitist) maintains that each of his portraits is a record of his relationship with the sitter at that moment. Could it be that what we see in the subject is an indication of how they felt about the photographer rather than the reverse? Naturally, if the photographer is well disposed to the sitter their response - and expression - is likely to reflect that. Portraits work in mysterious ways; one of the few times when it's OK to stare at someone for a long time. In fact the sitter's direct gaze invites it.

  2. Maybe what you see is how the photographer sees her/himself, which then translates to the subjects.

    What do you see in Avedon's portraits?

    Arnold Newman's portraits surely show his feelings towards his subjects. Or do they show a man trying very hard (and succeeding) to be a very grand and serious artist, and in return making his subjects appear to be very grand and serious too?

    What about Cartier-Bresson? He seems to mask his feelings most of the time.

    Sally Mann comes across as a person very comfortable in her own skin, quietly confident about who she is and what she's doing. That sense of who she is comes across in her subjects.

    When I look at Arbus photos I see a photographer who is tortured about herself, and she finds that pain reflected in the people she chooses to photograph. I think she loved her subjects because they allowed her to see their own pain, which gave voice to her own pain. A person doesn't kill themself if they have a good feeling about who they are.