Sitting in a cafe in 798
Thinking about the residency I'm on and what is different about making a portrait in China as apposed to the west. My research brought up some interesting thoughts. Firstly we in the 'West' (I say South) are much more about naming things and catagorising them. In China things are described much more relationally, actively, and often as verbs. So this is a blog about exploring portraiture as a verb.In the Head On photographic portrait prize several years ago a high commendation was awarded to Kris Machancho's ‘Hero's on a day off’. This was the Marcel Duchamp moment in the history of the prize, as the photograph did not have a face, but more so it was two people acting as famous fictional characters. So what can be considered a portrait was greatly enlarged. Perhaps now it is just that the photograph needs to have a human in it. So the great 'point' of portraiture doesn't hold anymore:
Yes, I cannot hide it any longer: I usually select content over form. Instead of creating a graphically surprising image, I am more interested in capturing the inner truth. Philippe Halsman
Or perhaps Newman is closer to the truth:I am convinced that any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals. The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, sometimes not even the man himself. Arnold Newman
In essence what photographers have endeavoured to do is find little more than the public persona of someone to show who they are to a wide audience. It’s a bit like letting us into a secret. In the work of Halsman and later Leibovitz, we find in their most involved work elaborate sets and with famous people that are PR people’s dreams (and if they go wrong, 'nightmares'). What they do is push a side of the famous that makes us think we are being let into a secret. These photographs are interesting - they are about doing, not sitting/being. Much of the Western portrait tradition is indeed about sitting or standing but in the end it's about physical appearance. Thomas Ruff, Irving Penn and many others' work comes to mind. It is about a noun, the person. It attempts to show more than the physical. But photography is about the physical - what is in front of the camera at any given moment (and what is done afterwards on the computer, ranging from slight colour and tonal shifts - like my work, to full scale changing of the person - see the blog photoshop disasters).
So we photograph people motionless, and still and we usually call this a 'portrait'. But even in the West we do not define ourselves by physical appearance (except on personal adverts in social media). When someone asks me to tell them about myself I usually start with my hobbies, career, and aspirations; not my age, height, and build. I am not me unless I’m moving. Doing. I’m not a man unless I'm in action. When I'm sleeping I may well be less of a man.
Lets go back a step here and consider my work to date. I’ve been told my work is very formalist. I arrange things and still things. This is interesting. I've always been attracted to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, but also Henri Cartier-Bresson. Though at this point I'm trying to move closer to HBC though (often) within a controlled environment. Here in Beijing I have an opportunity in that the Chinese don't mind being photographed by and large. Street photography works. Having a 200mm lens also helps; it allows me photographs before people are close enough to notice, before they pose.
On this residency I have been making photographs that are street shooting (HBC style) formal portraits (RM style in colour) and a intriguing combination. That is when I find a situation that I like (for example on a subway) I find someone to make the photograph. Most of the people I arrange to photograph, I know their names. Many of the people I photograph in the street I also ask their name. In doing so I’m blurring the difference between known and unknown. In fact having just arrived in Beijing, how well can I ‘know’ any of the people in my photographs? But if they are doing something they are exhibiting their public persona. In doing so they are open to be photographed as a portrait. Portraiture can be no more then a representation of a persona. Unlike my Federation Square project I have not asked anyone to be something they are not. All the men in these photographs are being/performing/doing, themselves.
Chinese culture has not had the emphasis on nouns that we do. Research shows that children in China learn as many verbs as nouns. The language and the culture likes defining things in terms of doing and relationships. I'm not picking up on human relationships here, but i am picking up on the relationship between doing and being. I've been trying to meet as many people as possible while I’m here and learn as much as possible. One of my meetings was with a linguist who talked about the interchangeability of nouns and verbs. This I found very interesting from a portrait point of view.