‘You are what you do’, a well-worn phrase that, rightly or wrongly, seeks to encapsulate the identity of an individual within the confines of a profession, job or social role.
Capturing identity in a photograph, or indeed a painting, creates a caricature that attempts to summarise an element of a subject. But does it capture their character?
ZedPipo explores this fascinating question through the prism of a series of portraits of people in Zambia from different walks of life, from a farmer to a central banker, from a pilot to a fisherman.The book explores some of the key philosophical debates of the ‘art versus representation’ conundrum. Can a photograph capture someone’s true likeness? Is a portrait art?
The context in which the picture is taken is important: the location, the clothes, the mise en scène. All conspire to build the semiotics and more closely define the subject’s identity. What difference does it make if the subject is looking at the camera, or is photographed seemingly unaware of the camera?
How does a formal, commissioned portrait differ from one taken by a friend and posted on social media? This book examines all these ideas and in the process presents an impartial social record that captures contemporary life in Zambia.
In his fourth book, ZedPipo, Peter Langmead, a commentator on Western art, captures the ever-changing people of Zambia. This is important, not only for the social history of Zambia but also as a reflection of global heritage.
ZedPipo, like Postcards from Zambia, The Zambians and zedscape, is a view of Zambians from a foreign perspective. The book clearly shows the difference between self-portraits and commissioned images, which are self-selected or manipulated to communicate desirable personal attributes, and portraits taken by Dr Langmead of contemporary Zambians in their professions, in the same way that August Sander, the eminent German portrait photographer, undertook a documentary project to compile a collection of photographs of people to provide a social portrait of his time. In a similar vein to this book, the subjects for his images were selected from his acquaintances and customers.
Most people who take a photograph of someone generally intend to capture a representation and rarely have any artistic pretensions or delusions. Whether the image is a likeness is most important to them but that is only one element in the discussion about pictures capturing the essence of the individual – ‘I can’t see the man for his likeness’ (Roger Fry). Although this quote was about an oil painting, a portrait of a wealthy person to be hung prominently to be seen by guests, many would argue it also applies to a photograph,
Portraits were not commissioned by individuals much before the 15th century, which was the start of European professional portrait painting and already 100 years into the Renaissance; but they have been a predominantly European art form at least since the Classical period of Greek civilisation, early 5th century BC to early 338 BC, used on coins, in sculpture and mentioned by ancient writers like Aristotle and Plato.
By the 16th century, there were portrait specialists and by the 18th century, portrait painting had become common practice.
In non-European cultures however, people were stylised by masks; individuals objected to the ‘capture of their spirits’; there was no concept of individuals; or there were cultural taboos about a likeness of a portrait. These inhibitions still prevail today in places.
Portraiture made photography. But an interesting observation by Brilliant (1991) is, ‘There is great difficulty in thinking about pictures, even portraits by great artists, as art and not thinking about them primarily as something else, the person represented’.
This is the nub of any discussion about photographic portraits because most readers do indeed only see the subject and not the art, and even the motivation for commissioning the photograph was probably not for the art anyway. But the statement implies that some perception of art is a key element of a portrait; either that or taken by a recognised photographer.
Portraits hanging in national galleries are generally formal and of recognisably famous people; these have become members of the elite portraiture genre because of the person or, if the subject is not important, the artist who painted it. Art historians use these criteria to classify portraits as members of the portraiture genre, which is one of a number of recognised classifications that include historical, landscape and still-life paintings. The Oxford dictionary says a portrait is, ‘A painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders: a portrait of George III’. Meanwhile, books on the genre are about ‘portraiture’ and the art of portraits.
There are many portraits in the hands of the public, but they are not of national interest, they may not be taken by a professional photographer and they may not be art either. Perhaps, portraits in the media, in mass film and digital photography, and on mobile phones, do not belong to the portraiture genre because they are not seen by art historians. Perhaps the many portraits that exist on mobile phones, in particular, taken by amateurs for their own benefit, warrant a change in view about the provenance of portraits, because to exclude them from the genre of portraiture on the grounds that the pictures are artless and there are insufficient galleries, interest and art historians is erroneous.
But people are fascinated by other people, related or not: the press wants pictures of people for their newspapers, not pretty views; TV wants interviews with people, not pictures of inanimate objects. But this demand from uncritical audiences, which suggests a greater fascination by people with people than with art, is not saying the images are artless.
Likeness, Character and Identity
The roles of a portrait are to show what the subject looks like, the character and the identity. Whether the image is a good likeness is personal judgement, of the viewers, including the subject, and they see what they want to see; but one representation is no better than another. There are contentious paintings of Queen Elizabeth II, for example.
The second role of a portrait is to show character. To some extent this is defined by facial features and expression, clothing and environment, but it is mostly about perception by a third party, who may or may not know the subject.
The third, at a superficial level, is the easiest: the subject’s clothes and environment, and the semiotics, perhaps tools, help to show the job or career and the identity of the subject.
Despite trying to capture these personal and transient characteristics, portraits, whether painted or photographed, are limited in their capacity to deliver. Bate (2009) is explicit: the face is an indicator of personal appearance that includes facial expression, hairstyle and grooming, [and skin condition and complexion]; the pose is an indicator of manner, attitude and ‘upbringing’; clothes show ‘social class, sex, cultural values and fashion’; and the location [environment and symbols] shows the social scene of the person in the picture. The features illustrate who the subject is and what they are like, but do not help capturing the likeness that grandma remembers when the subject was two years old. The relative importance of these features in the picture defines the type of portrait and its use.
Meanwhile the artist is expected to capture character and paint it on canvas. An image does deliver a characterisation, in the same way caricature does, but an image cannot capture all the characteristics recognised by all the readers all the time any more than a painting crafted over several months can do any better than a photograph that captures a decisive part of a multifaceted character at a decisive moment. Further, that extracted moment, taken unawares, is merely a different aspect of character than that smiling photograph looking at the camera taken on the beach that shows another facet of character entirely. In fact, characters are so complex that a lifetime’s images may fail to represent someone. So, an individual painting is unlikely to truly capture a character any more than an individual photograph.
Finally, portraits become important in matters of death and war, or loss for any other reason. Few can remember the composite images of their late mothers and fathers to any degree, simply because those memories are built up from a continuum of experiences. This is no different from the famous self-portraits of Rembrandt or van Gogh, and nobody knows them personally except by biography. Even Barthes (1981) could only find one photograph from his mother’s lifetime that came anywhere close to his memories of her, and that was when she was a child. But there is a difference: those self-portraits survive because of their importance as the works of famous artists, but the private photographs of your friends of a lifetime and more ancient relatives, and Barthes’ mother for that matter, may be lucky to survive more than a few generations, despite being good ‘portraits’ of their time and representations of the subjects.
Headrests, Fauns, Selfies, Social Media
Looking at photographic portraits over time, in the early days, there was a fashion for formal studio portraits, of father, mother and children individually and together, in front of plate cameras needing head rests, clamps and posing stands: the steadying hand on the face becoming symbolic of intellectual thoughtfulness transcended to portrait painting, while the romantic faun-like backgrounds transcended from landscape painting. In those days, calotypes and daguerreotypes, which were around in the 1840s, were expensive but still cheaper than a painting. A cursory glance at past paintings and old photographs reveals there have been changes over time, in poses, clothing styles, demeanor, formality, conformance, hairstyles, makeup and look. Less clear but nonetheless true is the casualisation of the interpretation of the image in our own time: jeans can mean poverty-stricken labourer but more likely a rich entrepreneur.
With the arrival of the usable 35mm film camera from Leica in 1924, photojournalism and personal photography became more flexible and practical. Later, there was progression to mass photography, first with the Kodak Brownie, and then the Instamatic and other camera developments. Later still, the advance of digital photography eventually and swiftly combined with the mobile phone and social media to create an unprecedented democratization of portrait-based photography.
It is undoubtedly the mobile phone’s ‘selfie’ that has changed the world; it has revitalised and individualised the portrait and propelled it forward beyond all expectations. Although many may argue that an instant opportunistic selfie is not a work of art and is not comparable with a self-portrait by van Gogh, they could be wrong: as Brilliant says, ‘portraits are artworks, intentionally made of living or once living people by artists, in a variety of media, and for an audience.’
Although self-portraits were painted by many of the great artists, never have so many mobile phone self-portraits been taken by people. Further, and unlike the self-portraits of the great artists, the feature of selfies is that, almost by definition, the photograph shows the subject in the context of some environment, whether it is a pop concert or the Eiffel Tower, or a group of friends. While these portraits may never be seen except by the phone owners and their social media friends, they are more representative of personal identity than commissioned paintings or photographs, or photographs by friends, or the wedding and school photographs and family portraits that continue to be the staple business of commercial photographers. It is unfortunate that selfies may get posted but they are rarely printed and displayed.
In recent decades, swelling bureaucracy has used photographs for identification, in passports, driving licenses and identity cards, and on every internet-based social media site. During early bureaucratic developments there was a belief that physiognomics, the study of facial features, enabled classification of people, which it notably failed to do. As Brilliant (1991) observed, ‘failure to recognise the many physiognomic indicators compromises the viewer’s response to the portrait’.
This idea was unable to determine the correctness of an image anyway, and the ‘best’ portrait remains in the eye of the beholder. Photographs have been adopted by security services for identification purposes and the extent of surveillance is probably beyond anything we want to imagine or the authorities are going to admit, but the portrait now pervades everything.
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.
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.
Who Pays the Gatekeeper?
Almost everyone likes a picture of themselves; it is commonly known that the press publishes pictures of people that everyone wants to see, to increase sales, the rich and famous are normal candidates and explain the existence of the paparazzi. Bate (2009) recognises three classes of people: the familiar, who are your family, neighbours and acquaintances; the unknown, who are strangers and foreigners; and representations of known personalities, who are recognised from public life or some notoriety. Most of the people in this book are acquaintances, pp17, 28, 87, with a few strangers, pp82, 85, 91 and personalities from public life, pp66, 70, 81.
Another issue is who pays for the portrait? A self-portrait or a commissioned portrait delivers what the patron wants. A non-commissioned photograph is not obliged to communicate the wishes of the subject and, like the biography, is perceived to be more reliable, and more documentary in nature.
August Sander (1876-1964) was the father of modern portrait photography; he used the environment around his subjects. ‘The money earned from commercial commissions allowed Sander to work in his spare time on a grandiose documentary project entitled ‘People of the 20th Century’, aimed at compiling a typology of contemporary Germans and devising a social portrait of his epoch. Subjects for these images were selected from his acquaintances and customers’, (augustsander.com). Sander showed the professions of his subjects by their clothes, their environment and their manner.
The portrait can fulfil its need to show the character of the subject, it can be interpreted and its subject can be important, but none of these make it a work of art. In Western Europe, portraiture has been a recognised genre for many years, effectively recording eminent figures of wealth, politics and the arts since the 15th century for national heritage, essentially regulated by art historians. The digital age has changed the meaning of portraiture by elevating phone owners to photographers and artists with audiences of their social media friends, perhaps redefining portraits of national importance, while many others of and by ordinary people will never be seen or judged by art historians and will die with their phones.
Artwork is something that gives aesthetic pleasure, which is personal, whether or not honed by education and experience. Postmodernism declared the end of history. The mobile phone’s camera in the hands of many artists with their own aesthetic judgement of beauty may be the end of the portrait but not of the portraiture genre of famous personalities and artists.
To some extent this book is an extension of Sander’s work, but in Zambia, and there is still a need for this type of documentation for posterity. But, with the mobile phone and the selfie, everything has changed and the greatest democratisation for portraits has been social media. The implication is there is no gatekeeper anymore and there can be no return.