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