Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The British Face

I just watched this DVD which I bought from the National Portrait Gallery in August. It follows the actress Fiona Shaw as she examines the concept of portraiture and is divided into 2 sections.

1. Portraits & the Artist
This is about the relationship between the artist and the sitter. It concentrates on the intent of the artist, and there is a general consensus that the artist is trying to capture the 'character' or 'essence' of the subject. It is suggested that this is perhaps why passport photographs are not usually referred to as portraits.

The artist Stuart Pearson Wright talks about the intimacy between artist and subject who often do not exchange words. I thought this was an interesting idea because, on the one hand not speaking to someone you are spending time with can be difficult unless you are very comfortable with each other (assuming that the silence is not because you have fallen out!). But I have found that taking photographs of people without giving them immediate feedback can sometimes unnerve them. I suppose it depends on how comfortable they are about having their picture taken, and their expectations of the end result.

Stuart Pearson Wright discusses the tension between flattery and the truth. He avoids the former because this might imply that the subject is defective in some way. This differs from the approach taken when photographing celebrities where true likenesses are often cast aside in favour of what a film company or product manufacturer might want.

Francis Bacon took an expressionist approach and painted friends and lovers in their absence as he remembered them. These were not always well received, in fact Cecil Beaton destroyed Bacon's painting of him, such was his dissatisfaction.

The photographer Rankin said that photography was about creating 'visual lies' and his objective was to try and get to the truth. In order to do so, he would have a character or narrative in mind while taking the photograph.

2. Portraits & the Nation
This puts portraiture in a wider context and starts with the history of it. It was suggested that originally, portraiture had 3 main purposes: commemoration of the dead, representation of an icon and the celebration of an individual.

The subject of symbolism is introduced by Gerald Scarfe who uses this in his caricatures, and again the notion of 'the truth' and what it constitutes, is mentioned.

I personally think the idea of truth is both subjective and contextual. Everyone has their own interpretation of the truth and this can be affected by external influences.

The final part of the DVD is about the history of the National Portrait Gallery. It was founded to celebrate the achievements of notables who had been deceased for at least 10 years. Therefore, it was focussed on the past, and careful consideration was given as to who was considered worthy enough to have their portraits displayed in the gallery. In the case of scientists and some writers, their portraits served to illuminate their biographies in the case of those who were not immediately recognisable.

Over time, the range of exhibits has widened to include sculpture and photography, and the trustees have allowed the admission of living sitters since the 1960's. During the 1980's the gallery began to commission works of art so they are now creating it as opposed to simply collecting it.

What have I learned?
Portrait photography is a relatively new venture for me and I really like the idea of trying to capture the character of the subject. I read a comment from a wedding photographer once, who said that their aim was to try not to make the subject look like someone having their photograph taken.

I have been asked to do a photoshoot for a friend and her children next week, and in the first week of November I am doing a shoot for a dance group. Two very different types of image but in many ways very similar. Building a rapport with a subject is certainly important and the DVD has given me some ideas on what my psychological approach could be.

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