ZedPipo: Perception and Interpretation

Mankind interprets the face and body in every language, whether the individual is happy, sad, aggressive, frightened, angry or frustrated, simply from the eyes and mouth and the stance. A portrait is interpreted the same way.

It is often suggested that subjects should not look at the camera because it implies a posed shot, which is thought to lower the tone of the picture. There are few examples of non-posed photographs in this book where the subject has looked to camera at the decisive moment. Equally, the genuine smile, pp16, or the race marshal’s sullen look, pp29, is as much a characteristic of the subject as any other of the many facets of character.

Race marshalRace marshal

Another connotation of looking-to-camera is ‘the gaze’, or more accurately, avoiding the gaze. This is common in many cultures where neither men nor women look into the eyes of a superior, and women never look into the eyes of a man, superior or not. Although this has been associated with ‘colonialism’, it remains true in many cultures. An averted gaze also signifies modesty, shyness and piety, used for example by the late Princess Diana. Strangely, the camera can overcome this common cultural trait and people have a capacity to sense a camera, even at some distance, even from a well-lit stage to the darkness of an auditorium. This is not the same as a camera looking down on or up to a face, which imposes superiority or inferiority on the viewer. The example is Walker Evans’ Florida 1935.

A portrait of a subject who is focusing on something and genuinely is unaware of the camera will present an element of his character unlikely to be found in a posed photograph. The subject is also probably in his own environment and probably wearing appropriate clothes as well, which further define the subject’s character. In these circumstances, it seems that often the other desirable features of a portrait coincide to deliver a great photograph. It is often said in film that a person’s character is defined by his action. This is the decisive moment in portrait photography and has a lot in common with photojournalism and street photography, pp22. There is no reason why a portrait must be taken in a studio, other than convenience, any more than it must be photographed or painted by a professional artist, thanks to good little cameras and the increasing informality of global society. There will still be demand for dignitaries to be formally represented, in suits with an intellectual mise en scène of books, pens, spectacles and symbols of office, pp51; but these representations are rarely hung at home!

Jan van Eyck’s enigmatic The Arnolfini Marriage is nearly 600 years old. Is there a legal context in the reflection showing the artist as a witness, and signing he was there? Maybe at the time connoisseurs understood the oblique language of semiotics but they continue to be important; hence the selfie, with its inherent ability to capture background information, will capture the social history of this era. Do not underestimate this: carrots used to be purple and marmalade was made from quinces. Everything in the foreground and background matters: needle-injected serum, pp15, turbo jet pp45 and round bales of hay, pp46, for example, will be interesting to people in 600 years’ time.

30-second slideshow

Cover of the photobook ZedPipo Administrator Drummer Police woman Central banker Livestock owner Mother Theatre manager Milk testers Fashion designer Ground handler Flautist Children Stewardess Mine director

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, 2015

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