A Lensculture interview with Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the recent William Eggleston exhibition.
Prodger argues that portraiture can actually be a very poor means of capturing ‘identity’ in that the photograph can only ever capture us at a brief moment in time while our identities are not fixed – they change throughout our lives as we evolve, learn and experience life.
Further, he goes on to say that less skilled photographers can make work that is superficial by focusing on key features that have strong semiotic correspondences. He draws parallels with a writer making a ‘tireless nurse compassionate or an evil villain dastardly’, for example.
Fundamentally I agree with this in the sense that the changing character of people in response to their life experiences is what makes us who we are. Without this we would all be much the same or doomed to never changing our lot through striving to improve ourselves. We are never a ‘finished product’ in personality terms.
At one level we all know this and accept it from photography. A cringeworthy example of this might be when mum shows their offspring’s boyfriend/girlfriend the family photo album and a very different (younger) side to the current beloved is exposed to teasing and embarrassment! Apart from crazy teenage haircuts there are more significant issues too: a person suffering physical disability through accident or illness is bound to be a different identity in a portrait to who they were before it happened. At a physical level the cells in our body renew after a period of weeks or months, meaning that, quite literally, none of us are the same person we were last year.
Given that we accept that the human character, or identity, is not set in stone a photographic portrait can only ever hope to capture the essence of that person right here and now. I think this is where Barthes was coming from in Camera Lucida when he says ”
Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the “intention” according to which I look at it) is Death” (Barthes, 1980: P15). That moment has gone. That particular aspect of the subject has gone. That fact that is cannot be recreated exactly is what makes the photograph so special, and if skilfully done, represents identity at that particular time.
Barethes, R. 1980 Camera Lucida, London, Random House.