ceci n'est pas une pipe: on the truth of portraiture

Portraiture is arguably the most immediately accessible genre of photography. It's easy to understand a portrait- a photo of a person, usually. A face- something recognizable, something familiar. It's easy to look a photograph of a person and imagine what their life may be like, based on what we can see. 

The images above are selections from Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi. The first time I completed a body of work based in portraiture, the first feedback that I received from a professor was "I'm so glad these images don't look like Alec Soth". That single comment has shaped both the way that I photograph portraits and how I perceive them for the last four years. 

Allow me to rewind, momentarily.

These are selections from work made by Edward Curtis in the early 1900's. Curtis has been viewed as the father of ethnographic portraiture for the better part of the last two centuries, but in my own experience, people in the last ten years finally seem to be copping on to his crap. Curtis' Pictorialist style- softer focus and manipulation of the print color or chemicals in order to elicit a somewhat dreamlike appearance- renders the ethnographic validity of these images immediately null. Pictorialism is often spoken about as the catalyst for photography's exaltation to the realm of fine art in the mid 1900's. Why, then, have Curtis' images, especially those of indigenous North Americans, been viewed for so long as true representations of the people depicted? The idea of manipulation, of both the image and the viewer's emotions, are literally part of the definition of Pictorialism. Curtis' portraits are socio-cultural propaganda at their most basic.

Principal among the commonalities between Curtis' and Soth's photo is the anonymity of their subjects. The generally accepted idea of portraiture is to reveal the identity of a person- and while these two photographers may do that in the most superficial way, we cannot truly identify anything about these people outside of their frames. Seth's images, though most of them include some environmental context, are the height of Anywhere, USA. There are things we can infer based on the settings of some of his subjects- this person is on a bed, that person is outside, the other person is probably in a church. But the only reason we have a more specific geographic clue about his locations is because he gives it to us. Without a title, Sleeping by the Mississippi would become Sleeping Literally Anywhere. And suddenly, this anonymous mish-mash of folks becomes the precedent for what people look like in that part of the world. Likewise, Curtis' images of regalia-ed Natives provide little to no cultural context of the clothing or adornment portrayed. His subjects are depicted often in either ceremonial regalia, traditional clothing with a specific purpose, or, as in the case above, what appears to be an entire bear skin. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pretty much any of the thousands of Native groups in North America should know that none of these things are everyday wear. How did the war bonnet become synonymous with typical Native garb? Curtis.

I'm reminded of another "ethnographic" work of pseudo-non-fiction by our dear friend Robert Flaherty, titled Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, produced in 1922. The silent "documentary" tells the story of an Canadian Inut man, Allakariallak ("Nanook"), of the Itivimuit, his wife Nyla and their child Cunayou. In reality, various accounts from individuals who knew Flaherty and Allakariallak have revealed that this woman and child were not Allakariallak's family at all, but instead Flaherty's. Flaherty encouraged Allakariallak to hunt in the "traditional" way of his people, instead of with the gun that Allakariallak would normally use. Flaherty in fact refused to capture any film in which evidence of European contact was apparent, instead staging scenes capturing what were basically re-enactments of pre-colonial life in the Canadian Arctic.

But I digress. 

The two most important bodies of work that I am currently involved in are, at their most basic, works of portraiture. Not only in the sense that I am making photos that are mostly of faces and people, but in the sense that both bodies as a whole are meant to represent something. Like Stieglitz's Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait, the images I'm producing aren't meant to be viewed one at a time. They're a progression of an experience- one, a portrait of a matriarch with a terminal condition. The other, a portrait of a community grasping to stay rooted in our heritage. Obviously, neither of these works are as simple as what I've tried to boil them down to here, but then neither are my feelings regarding the totalitarian nature of the idea of a portrait. To believe that we can know someone by viewing an image of them is naive. To believe that we can capture even part of an individual's personality in a still frame is naive. To make our life's work out of depicting the faces of the world and to say that those images are a representation of everyone else who looks like that person is naive (cough, Steve McCurry). Making portraits never appealed to me until I realized that all we have to do is recognize that images of people are not the same as the people themselves. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, right? The image is not the object but merely a screen of a representation of the object. I just finished re-reading Jaques Lacan for the third time in four years and he still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that part I understand. 

I want to see aspects of my identity represented in the world so badly- on magazine covers, in movies and television, and in the music industry. I want to see people who look like me, talk like me, have similar experiences to mine out in the world, existing and being recognized. That's the main impetus for both the work I'm doing on my mother and the world that I'm doing with other children of Pacific immigrants. But through both of these works, I have to keep reminding myself that what I'm making will never be the same as what those people are living. My images are not their identities, my photographs are not their experiences. An image of the object is not the object.