Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What Makes A Great Portrait?

photograph by Judith Joy Ross

Ok, ok, ok...so this photo blogging world is incestuous, as everyone has pointed out recently. Also pretty male dominated, as pointed out by another photographer friend a few weeks back. None the less, a big orgy of photoblogographers convened at Conscientious to solve the issues of contemporary photography, specifically : what makes a great portrait?

Lots of great images and ideas in the essays. Lots of black and white images...why is that?
I got the chance to write about one of my favorite photographers, Judith Joy Ross, whose photograph is below.

Read it all HERE.


Stan B. said...

One of the things I like about discussions on portraiture these days is that there's a lot less pontificating. One of the things I don't like is that it hasn't resulted in better portraits.

Timothy Archibald said...

Hi Stan-
Hey...what does that mean? Tell more. It is interesting that alot of the portraits celebrated in that article are from a few decades past...oh, but Rineke Dijkstra’s work seemed to be celebrated alot...and that work is current. Tell me more.

Stan B. said...

Jeeez, can't ya, just like, take my word for it?

Back in the day, had one asked the same question, I think photographers would have been talking more in absolutes. Great portraits have: dramatic lighting, direct eye contact, whatever. I think that was, in part, because of the prevalence of black and white. With a more "limited" palette, there's more pressure to come up with the goods- "the intangible" as you put it. You don't have the luxury of complementary or discordant colors to pick up the slack or divert your attention. One was therefore more apt to come up with more formulaic "tried and true" procedures that would help assure that ethereal, human extra to come out and manifest. The photographer provided the environment and stimuli, the subject reacted.

Then came color, new technology, fresh blood and newer, or fewer guidelines. A few years back we had those studio portraits in which the subjects were as interchangeable as the background colors- the Becherization of portraiture. And now we have the poke me with a stick and see if I breathe school of portraiture that Bruce Haley likens to the excitement of "flipping through a phone book." And while Rineke Dijkstra might've inadvertently helped start that "movement," the reason her beach portraits are so damn great is because their body language is talking leaps and bounds (her more truncated soldier portraits fall considerably flatter). Meanwhile, you now have a host of imitators (not unlike the Helmut Newton imitators of the 70's) falling all over themselves to see who can get the most vapid expression possible by letting their subjects drift aimlessly as they ponder their destiny within the confines of the viewfinder.

I'm not saying A "good" and B "bad," just wondering when the thousand flowers will bloom in this new millenium...

Timothy Archibald said...

Wow. Stan, that was just awesome. Thanks for enlightening us.
Really just awesome.

colin pantall said...

Well put, Stan. I don't think a thousand flowers will bloom any time soon. The really great portraiture just stands out. There's not much of it about.

But new portraiture will emerge and it won't look like someone else's work, that's for sure.

As for Dijkstra, Beach Portraits are very different to Olivier, the foreign legion soldier, and very much involved with the body as you say. Olivier is about physical and mental change - it's about the eyes, the face and what lies behind it. It's nowhere near as beautiful as Beach Portraits, but it's powerful in its own right.

Timothy Archibald said...

You guys are all smarter than me.I won't even try to add a thing here. Thank ya all for putting in the effort!

Stan B. said...

Colin- Look forward to the day!

Tim- Talk is cheap, pictures are... hard!

Ian Aleksander Adams said...

Tim mentioned fewer guidelines, and I think that's something important. Kosuth once said "The 'value' of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art." as in we are living in a postmodern era... but I don't often hear photographers talk about art in such a way.

I'm very interested in how we separate an "inimate snapshot of a person" from "a fine art portrait." Is it primarily contextual?

Timothy Archibald said...

Hi Ian-
Ya, I think that is the big differnce...its just context. Lots of artists are trying to capture the innocense of a snapshot, then put it in a new context to call it art. It's the stance of pulling the photo aside and calling it "art" that makes us pay attention to it and then decide if it stands up or not.