This post could be as concise as ‘I know it when I see it’, and it would mostly be true as that’s more or less how I got about identifying and approaching someone for a street portrait. But more than one person has commented that there seems to be a theme in the portraits, albeit one that’s hard to pin down and so I started to think whether the process of ‘curation’ itself could be revealing, if indeed I could explain it, after all, this is as much a part of the artistic process as actually making the portrait.
Selecting a stranger for a portrait is a delicate thing. By choosing one person over another we are (hopefully) revealing to the world something about them and something about us. What does it say about me for example that I choose to present the portrait of person A over person B and what can I learn about myself by trying to understand something that so far I have done largely on instinct.
There are a three dimensions that govern the process. The first is who I choose to approach; person A versus person B and is the focus of this blog entry. The other two dimensions include the degree of engagement I experience with the subject and how the final image turns out. I will explore these separately. The process of curation is perhaps the most revealing part of the process in terms of understanding self but also the most difficult to explain (and interestingly be honest about).
First there is the potential artistic interest. I really try to steer away from the obvious; I’m far less interested in making the kind of images you might see in any glossy magazine or TV advert because I don’t think that tells us anything interesting outside of commenting on popular culture. A well composed, beautifully lit portrait of a fabulous looking model with perfect hair and makeup is just, and only, that. A model is paid to look the way you direct them; the more you pay, the more likely it is that they will be able to present you with precisely what you are looking for. Of course there is always a balance, a tension between what you’re looking for and what they chose to show, or indeed how they choose to show it. But the engagement is still professional and therefore transactional. OK that’s probably not completely true but it’s certainly less visceral than working with a complete stranger who isn’t a professional model.
And of course, it’s not to say that popular culture isn’t present in any of the portraits I make, by definition it must be. But more important is how that person has chosen to present themselves to the world. We all make a choice about how we want to present ourselves to the world. The way we dress, the way we walk, our choice of language and what we choose to share with people are all how we determine we want the world to experience us. If you can try to see what that person wanted you to see then you can learn something about them.
There is then a ‘look’ that I tend to gravitate towards. It’s something out of the ordinary, a little bit different, something edgy or outré. It’s more or less in the category of ‘I know it when I see it’ but is most readily codified by someone’s dress, style, gait or posture. It says that the person really did think about how they are presenting to the world and that this process was important to them because they wanted to be noticed or needed; to be different or the same; to be affiliated or included or separate. To be accepted or even rejected. It’s not the ‘look’ that matters, which is why I have no interest in fashion photography. The clothes only matter when they are being worn because the person is trying to tell you something and it’s the something that really matters. It’s also why a person’s gait and posture are of as much interest, if not more interest, as anything else. How a person holds themselves is a fascinating and revealing subject and I’ve chosen a lot of people on this basis.
What I see might not warrant more than a casual glance anywhere else but when you select that person and present them to others, specifically for the purpose of looking, then you demand that the observer pay more attention. I’m still not comfortable using the term ‘artist’ to describe myself (or the word ‘art’ to describe what I produce, but I will cover that in a separate discussion), but if we can have an agreement to use the word purely for expediency for a moment, then the art begins and ends with the gaze. There’s a lot of stuff in between, certainly a lot more that transcends our sensory experience, but it starts and ends with our looking. So presenting something specifically for purpose of being looked at, the signifier, reveals something more than you might have otherwise seen, the signified. And when what you are seeing are people then you (and I) will, hopefully, come to understand more about the nature of our humanity in the process.
This is where the more complex and slightly uncomfortable dimensions come in to play. I try very hard to divorce the act of looking from the process of desiring or coveting. It’s the easiest thing in the world to simply select the most attractive person you can find and persuade them to pose. It’s easy because those are the images that are probably going to be most readily accepted and applauded by your audience (I’ve really noticed that the portraits I present on social media sites such as Flickr with the most ‘likes’ are the ones of young, pretty females closely followed by young handsome men!) It’s also easy because the more attractive a person is, the more likely they are to be at least vaguely aware of that and therefore the most comfortable with their own image and thus the most likely to agree to be photographed. I see this time and time again, especially when approaching older people. Their initial response is to ask why on earth you would want to take their picture followed quickly by making excuses for their own appearance, presentation or looks. They wouldn’t possibly make a good picture.
And yet this selecting out of those that I find attractive is incredibly hard to do. Talking to someone we find attractive is incredibly reaffirming; it makes us feel good about ourselves (unless of course they are rejecting us in which case it has quite the opposite effect) so why wouldn’t you do it?
What makes this an uncomfortable truth is the question of motive and authenticity. If the only reason I have asked a person to be a subject is because I find them attractive then it calls into question my motives; is this less about the important and more complex commentary of the portrait and more about flirting; about making me feel good about myself by engaging with someoneI find attractive? If that were the case then the authenticity would evaporate and the image would be reduced to voyeurism (where specifically voyeurism is the process of looking or watching without the knowledge or consent of the other party; this can happen even if the subject is aware of you if your motives for doing this are less than honest).
I don’t believe that something that is voyeuristic can be art because voyeurism is about power, not art. None of this is to say that you can’t take a meaningful portrait of someone you find attractive; just that it runs the risk of being superficial.
Despite all this (rambling) by far my most compelling and consistent reason I ask someone to be a subject is because I see something that I think represents a set of experiences that are vastly different to mine and that consequently there is something more insightful and profound that I can learn from. That difference is usually represented by age or, and I am being very delicate when I say this, social standing or class. I know that the environment I grew up in was one of relative privilege and comfort (my experiences at primary school notwithstanding), and I know that however I’ve got to be where I am now, that relative privilege and comfort has been maintained. But I’ve always been drawn to engage with people from any and all backgrounds but in particular those whose backgrounds have meant that life has been more difficult than my experience.