Saturday, March 28, 2020

Modern Portraits

There's a category of portraiture or more generally just pictures of people that I have in mind here. Alec Soth is maybe the most obvious example.

But first a digression, one maybe familiar to long time readers. We, humans, are mindreaders. The expression on a person's face, the set of their body, let us form a model of their mental state with startling accuracy. We're not 100% by any means, and we can be fooled (see: "acting"), but we're way better than random. Enormous parts of our big fat brain seem to be devoted to this activity.

Hence the portrait, specifically the photographic portrait. A photo captures enough detail, with enough veracity, to give that big fat brain of ours something to chew on.

A good portrait does that, ideally with some depth. It's more than she looks happy, maybe there are layers. She looks happy but also.. and so on. We get some sense, possibly imagined, of the personality of the person, etc etc.

Alec Soth has mastered a different kind of thing, he has mastered the picture of the person who is waiting for him to be done. There's not a lot going on in these faces, beyond impatience tempered by a combination of generosity and awe.

We see this same thing in the photos of Rania Mater, and also (thanks Eric!) Laura Pannack, and others. It has become a kind of a trope. You could argue, I think, that Diane Arbus falls, if not into this camp, a camp nearby.

The conceit, invariably, is that these are terribly revealing portraits. Presumably, you can tell that they are tremendously revealing because they look like all the other tremendously revealing portraits, I guess. What they reveal seems to be whatever the artist wants them to reveal.

Actually looking at the pictures tells a different story. Sometimes, to be fair, the subjects do show a frisson of whatever the artist is going for, but the expression and body language are usually dominated by this is so awkward are we done yet? I do not, to be honest, quite know how to achieve this. I think you need very compliant models. Mine simply quit or become vocal before they reach this stage of silent awkwardness.

Anyways, how on earth did we get here? There was certainly a time when we knew about portraits and how they worked. There is a long and well worked out tradition, here. The trouble, of course, is that it is worked out, which is no good to the up and coming Serious Artist. Also, sotto voce, it's pretty hard and requires soft skills which the artist may not even possess.

There is a strong thread in contemporary art of the death of the author (largely from people who have read the title of the Barthes essay but nothing further), the idea that artist intention is irrelevant, that meaning is conditional or irrelevant. Photographs are all lies, the idea that any kind of truth can be found in a photo is a naive illusion, and so on. Punctum this, studium that.

This is, of course, all balderdash. Or, at any rate, largely balderdash with a pinch of truth in it. A critic might say with one breath that artist intent doesn't matter, and in the next drone on at length about what is clearly his interpretation of artist intent. The nihilists themselves don't even believe this stuff. They can't because it makes no sense and, more importantly, if it were true they would have to fall silent.

Is this nihilism related to these ghastly un-portraits? I don't know, but I think it is at least credible that there's some relationship.

If meaning and intent are all illusions, then one photograph is just like another. One can read into it whatever you like (this also explains and so any sort of picture of a person is a deep and revealing plunge into the subject's psyche, if only I say it is.

To be fair, I don't think that it is this organized, this clear. These are not notably clear thinkers, after all. There is a sort of muddled nihilisim in play, though, and that lends itself to pretty open ended readings of work. If the work itself incapable of meaning or communication, then you have only the artist's statement to rely on. So, you're stuck either reciting that, or you can simply make up whatever you like.

It is fascinating to notice how much the Serious Critic resembles the newbie camera owner. Both assert that art is all subjective anyways, and both insist angrily that their opinons about this or that are, nevertheless, objectively true. The primary difference seems to be that the newbie cites Art History (about which he knows exactly nothing) and the Serious Critic doesn't cite anything at all beyond, perhaps, some vague reference to Barthes (about whom he knows exactly nothing.)

Meaning is real.
Communication is possible.
Photographs do tell the truth.

These things are all true, albeit a bit conditional, a bit squishy, a bit unsure. We cannot rely on them, but nevertheless they are the poor supports upon which we must base our work, not because of their particular strength, but because there isn't anything else.

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