Monthly Archives: October 2016

Reflection – Identity

 

Reflection point
When different understandings of identity come into conflict with each other it can be quite contentious. When I moved to a suburban area after living in a student area I was shocked
to discover the different expectations now on me to be a good neighbour. In the student area anonymity was the norm but here I was expected to introduce myself and tend to my weeds!

This example is more about collective identity and expectations. You may wish to think about collective or individual identity. Can you think of some examples from your own experience, or of someone you know, where there was a clash of identity? What happened and can you see how fluctuating notions of identity are still potentially problematic? What does it mean, for you, to be yourself? 

My story: good job, company car, magistrate, small village where, yes, people do tut if you let the weeds grow.  Then I realised several years ago I was living their collective identity while suppressing my own.

That isn’t the way to a fulfilling life.  Imagine dying and still never have discovered who you actually are, having assessed your worth, skills and talents only by the yardstick of others?

Yes, we need to play the game.  We wear their style of clothes when asking them to pay us for doing their work.  We conform for 8 hours a day.  But it’s a work uniform now, its not who I really am.

Outwardly, nothing changed in the beginning except my hair grew.  I saw that people responded to me differently because I no longer fitted their preconceived expectations of who I ought to be.  I was reminded of when I used to ride a motorcycle and people in shops would treat me differently for no reason apart from wearing leathers on my next visit.

Funniest moment: needed a bandana to stop my hair flapping in my eyes when out hiking on windswept moors.  Looking my suit and tie up and down, the lady in the shop said “what do you need it for, a mid-life crisis?”.

It’s a shame that the commercial mechanisms of modern society are all oriented towards stifling individual identity and manipulate us to adhere to an established norm.  Britain used to be famed for its eccentrics – now the power of advertising makes us obsess over the minutiae of virtually identical car shapes and colours; wear the same fashions; watch the same films; work in the same industries.  Governments nudge us to comply, aspire and behave with a preferred collective identity.  In that way society behaves with predictability.

We are all unique, even if we are encouraged to act as though we are not by the powers that control our lives.

  

Maybe  the role of the portrait photographer is to spot this individuality and tease it out.

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Train your gaze – Angier

I decided to start my studies for I&P by reading this book which is listed on the course reading list.  Portraiture is not an area my photography has previously focussed heavily on and I thought this would be a good way to attune my thinking.

Chapter 1 begins with some high level insights into the depth and richness within a good portrait. Angier uses ‘The Kiss of Peace’ by Cameron to illustrate how the simple act of choosing where the main subject casts her gaze creates a level of meaning in the image that would otherwise not be present.  Similarly with Film Still #3 by Sherman, the careful use of depth of field on washing up liquid and a pan handle, the placement of the subject’s body and off camera gaze, all build a suggestion of male dominance in a domestic environment.

Having shown the way with the subtle devices open to the portrait photographer she then goes on to explore these areas in greater depth.

Chapter 2 explores the role of the face in portraiture, both when included and excluded from the shot.  Beginning with a reflection on the difficulty early photographers had in portraying the ‘inner’ rather than façade of persona due to inordinately long exposure times, Angier highlights the importance of other signifiers other than the face itself.  For example, Lee Friedlander’s shadow self portraits on another person have a sinister element to them.  Bacigaluppo explores the portrait left behind when the face is cut from the photograph to make an ID card or passport.  The chapter culminates with a study of one of Francesca Woodman’s most famous images, the charcoal I print of self on a wooden floor.  This black outline, resembling a crime scene perhaps, resembles a ‘trace of something that has been left behind’ and contrasts with her pale, naked and present self placed on a chair overlooking it.  Her face is again out of shot.  Angier quotes Sundell in saying that the image carries a very high level of artistic maturity for someone so young, capturing the essence of ‘that struggle to reduce a physical body to a photographic image’…’in such an incredibly eloquent way with so many problems of female identity’ (Sundell in Angier, 2015. p35).

Chapter 3 explores the decisions around framing the image, the decision as to what is included and what is not and asking us:

‘What is the nature of the frame? Consider it as a container. As such, it can be

an energy field, alive and swarming, perhaps near to bursting, with information.

Or it can be a tighdy closed box, a hermetically sealed vessel for an immobilized

specimen, something for you to examine later at your leisure. These are two extremes,

neither having more intrinsic merit than the other. The two cases represent different

sensibilities, different ways of perceiving and organizing the world.’ (Angier, 2015)

Camera design has, on the whole, perpetuated a lazy convention that the most important subject matter is sharply focussed and placed in the centre of the frame.

 

References

Angier, R. (2015) Train your gaze: A practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. 2nd edn. New York: Fairchild Books & Visuals.