This won't really be about portraits, but it kind of flows out of the same thread of thought, so here we are.
I have proposed in the past, and tried vigorously to sell it both to my readers and myself, that people
perceive the camera's power as a thing that makes photographs; that they perceive the power of those
photographs as talismans with the power to conjure. The photo conjures a kind of pseudo-presence, and the
knowledge that it does so is, per this theory, what makes the camera's lens repellent.
This has never sat that well with me,
but it was the best I had, so I tried to like the theory. I don't think it's completely wrong, even now.
Still, there is I think something more primal in play as well, and I think that this primal thing is maybe more important.
Consider the ways we can be looked at.
In face-to-face conversation, we look at one another. We read expression and body language, in concert with the
mouth noises we're hearing. Communication in this mode fully integrates sight and sound, what I see on your
face modulates the meaning of what I hear you say, and vice versa. I am looking at you, you are looking at me, and neither one of
us is self-conscious about this or even really aware of it. However, if you stop noticing my body language,
my expression, and respond only to my words, the odds are good that the conversation is about to go off the
Two people are across the room from one another, perhaps at a party. One looks at the other.
The other catches the glance, arches an
eyebrow. The first can smile and nod in reply, and close the loop. A conversation of sorts is occurring. The first
can also let his glance slide off, pretend not to notice, or can continue to stare without making acknowledgement.
This is offensive; this is rude.
We have, most of us, experienced the difference between conversational looking, and that "looking" from a loved
one that makes us ask "what? do I have something in my teeth?" and perhaps even felt the switch from one mode
to another mid-conversation.
The distinction is maybe one of the second person, versus the third person. I can feel when my wife withdraws
and begins to see me as "him" rather than "you." It turns out that "he" has some unsightly nose hair, or something,
which distracts her from the second-person looking.
At the same time, though, an audience sees the athlete or the actor in the third person, and the result is not
rudeness or even necessarily cold, or particularly distant. The so-called "audience effect" has been
studied, apparently, and can result in a bunch of different
outcomes. To be seen, to be watched, in the third person invariably has an emotional impact. It may spur
an athlete to greater performance, it may rouse the pretty girl to anger. It is, I think, always felt in
I'm going to name these things social and asocial looking, on the grounds that the first kind is essentially a shared social activity, and the latter... is not.
I have no idea if there is research on this specifically. I do know that "audience effect" is a thing which has been studied, and I know that there's a lot of research around animals looking at other animals, and how it's sometimes
seen as hostility or whatever. But this social/asocial distinction is not something I have specifically run
across, as far as I recall. Nevertheless, I think it's very much a real thing?
I also have no idea if this is some sort of spectrum, or whether these are two distinct and separate things.
What is clear, at least to me, is that we perceive the camera as a kind of asocial looking. The camera observes,
but does not take part in the conversation. The camera sees us in the third person. This has, well, it has
effects. Various and sundry effects that depend on a lot of variables.
My conceit here is that there is not much functional difference between photographing someone, and staring dead-eyed at them.
The candid photograph is thus related to the kind of normal third-person people watching that is, at least in
the west, perfectly acceptable. I can stare at the pretty girl, the cute baby, the interesting old gentleman,
subject to certain rules: I have to be moderately discreet and fairly brief; if my gaze is observed, I have to acknowledge
with a pleasant gesture (switch to social looking,) and then move on. The formal portrait strives to simulate
second-person looking, the "social gaze" if you will, and often falls short.
The camera "looks" asocially, inevitably. Essentially, it has no eyebrows to waggle, and that is the end of it.
The viewer of a photograph also looks asocially at the subject, because the subject cannot reply, being
just a photo. In a real social interaction, subject and viewer would (might) interact, might see one another
in the social mode. The photograph splits this, the camera sees asocially, and later the viewer sees likewise
I think, perhaps, this might be the root of the perceived hostility, the perceived invasion-of-privacy, the
discomfort we feel, in front of the camera. It is less the photograph and its talismanic power, and more the
simple stare of a dead-eyed stranger. Or, for that matter, a dead-eyed loved one.
At the same time, the dead eyed audience of the camera can spur performance, hence the smirking camera face.
A model learns to act for the camera, to deliver a more useful performance than a smirk. The same lens
can be seen as aggressive or hostile, leading to the raised hand and turned face or more dramatically the
angry reaction (cf. Bruce Gilden, who whatever his mode, always provokes a performance of some sort.)
This does not mean that the camera is literally aggressive, it is not. It is asocial, and depending on other
cues, depending on ourselves, depending on context, we react to its asocial gaze in a variety of ways.
The classical "good portrait" seems to be to be accomplished by shifting the camera's gaze as close to
social looking as possible. Perhaps the subject is able, somehow, to imagine a viewer on the other side,
and to "speak" with their expression and body into a void, as it were, but in the social mode. Somehow the
subject is induced to respond to the expressionless eye of the camera as-if it were a social creature,
as-if it were involved in the conversation, as-if it were in the second person.
The camera, somehow, becomes "you" rather than "it" if only for a moment.