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Friday, 26 September 2008

The artist is the enemy

A while ago, Lexi at Subjectify mentioned a Jan Banning quote that said "Your subject is your main enemy". I took this to mean the subject is the person/thing whose essence must be subjugated to the will of the artist, the person/thing who in turn resists the artificial pixelated/celluloid self imposed on them by the photographer.

The general idea is that that everything would be just perfect if only the subject would do as we say, if only they could perform to the ideal we have in mind, if only they could be what we want them to be, show what we want them to show.

Except that it wouldn't. Flip that quote around and the artist is the enemy. The subject is who they are and they do not want to be pigeon-holed into some limited typolological ideal of whatever the artist has in his/her head. Even when the subject is being represented as him/herself, there is resistance to the simplification of their holistic self to the reductive level of 2 dimensional piece of plastic or paper (with text, slide show, audio or whatever other media is used to capture reality and encase it in pixels or soundbytes).

So there is conflict between the subject and the artist. The artist wants the subject to be someone they are not, and the subject resists this by a variety of means - even when they are trying to be helpful and do as their portrayer would like. By so doing, by adapting to the subjectivity of the artist, they lose themself.

It seems that the photographer who tries to capture the inner essence of a person, that ideal of humanity is doomed by their own endeavour - all he or she can do is capture an image tied into the nostalgia of photography's back-story.

And if the photographer is the one imposing his/her view on the subject, by inveigling them into their own constructed take on the world, then what are we to make of that. Is the artist such an philosopher or poet that we should take their portrayals of the world at all seriously. And if they are, why aren't they doing philosphy or poetry instead of the great trivia we all love (But then again, why swap one trivia for the photographic one that we all love and admire and write about so much. It is always good to remember that photography, poetry, philosphy and art is trivia, and to humble ourselves accordingly.)

There are photographers who short circuit this conflict by not seeming to expect anything , so the projected self of the subject almost collapses in on itself - the subject doesn't know what they are expected to do, they don't know who they should be and so something else of their persona appears in the gaps. And perhaps these people are the ones who succeed most in their portrayals - a real sense of self falls through the gaps of the conflict between subject and photographer.

But then there are photographers for whom the conflict of self becomes the raison d'etre of the whole work and others for whom a mediated dissipation of the dramatic sets the scene for a neutral portrayal of their version of reality.

In any case, as a prime example of the artist as enemy I present Dr Barnado's (who founded a famous children's home in England) pictures of Florence and Eliza Holder. I love these pictures. They show loving sisters clad in clean but threadbare dresses, wearing shoes, arms around each other. This is how they arrived at Barnado's home, brought by their mother. The second shows one of Barnado's publicity pictures, the before picture depicting Florence with unkempt hair, with barefeet, looking distinctly unhappy. This is Barnado's version of her "before" she came to his home. No wonder she looks pissed off! The artist is the enemy.


Stan B. said...

Portraiture is just one of those things with 25 thousand ill defined and competing variables coming at ya from all sides- the photographer's, the subject's, and the immediate environment. Sometimes you try and stick to the game plan, other times its just best to go with whoever takes the lead.

At this point in the game though, I'd rather stomach another cheap ass McCain kill shot than one more of those zombied, deer in the headlights, "the photographer has abandoned me and left me to my own devices" cries for intervention.

colin pantall said...

Someone's putting that look into the "deer in the headlights" look - and trying to use that disengagement to show something meaningful. The relationship between the artist, subject and ourselves is what makes that kind of image interesting - what exactly is going on or are we supposed to think is going on?

Anonymous said...

I think what I at least am looking for is a bit of magic. I know that it's all in the details--and while I'm working out all the other variables, the framing, the light, the depth of field, I'm thinking what I can do to lead the subject into that territory--their gaze, their manner, their posture. i like to play indirect games sometimes, because telling them straightaway quite often leads to the opposite of what you want.
that's our profession though: using our bag of tricks to induce *something* magical to happen.