Posts Tagged ‘portraiture’

Portraiture and Projection by Céline Bodin

Appearances are bearers of meaning. Our first impressions of a person are concealed within our own imaging process. The tendency to classify into types is almost instinctive; it is a common path towards identification. Portrait photography is its ambiguous medium. Scraping the surface, it destabilises our sense of reality. Because of its supposed guaranty of exact replication of the living reality, it has been established to ‘re-present’ and reveal.

In the 19th century it was considered the best means to classify and identify into types with the use of phrenology and physiognomy, as can be seen in Francis Galton’s composites which merged multiple individuals into one generic image. Photography offers time for the contemplation of subtle details; unlike painting, it isn’t the summary of its subject.

However, along its journey towards contemporary portraiture the notion of representation has become problematic: what is readable only on the surface? To what extent are we learning about the individual portrayed in the instant of an image? Does a portrait truly allow space for genuine presence?

Photography is objective only in its functional aspect but it is somehow weakened in its ability to unite self and subject. Imagery offers fantasy, it can comfort and reassure. Susan Sontag, in her study On Photography (1973), insists on a photograph to be only a ‘narrowly selective transparency’. It is only a part of reality.

The question of projection is key. Posing is an obstacle to the ‘air’ that allows us to recognise the person, as Roland Barthes stated in Camera Lucida (1980). In Portraiture: Facing the Subject, (1997), Joanna Woodall introduces the notion of ‘portraiture’s mimetic mask’, as we are bound to look for the flaw in the surface which will guide us to the true presence. Therefore, the portrait opens itself to interrogation and suggestion more than it delivers a sense of truth or character.

The works of contemporary photographers Rineke Dijkstra, Bettina Von Zwehl, or Marjaana Kella revisit the conventions of portraiture as a genre. Dijkstra’s work is strong in narrative, her subjects enter the camera’s frame to tell a story subtly shaped by the specificity of a moment or action. In the case of Von Zwehl portraiture is treated as a laboratory, as she carries out experiments on her subjects, confronting them with their own vulnerability while the camera witnesses their reaction.

When 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot documented hysteria, he proved that the likelihood of the patient performing was increased by the presence of the medical staff. The notion of performance, as an observed state, raises the question of authenticity in the self as it engages with attitude. To disrupt their subjects’ effort at self-representation Von Zwehl, and Dijkstra consider the residual traces of extreme forms of exertion or specific contextual affect, as a bullfighter leaves the arena (Villa Franca di Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994), a woman just gave birth, or vulnerable subjects lie on the floor holding their breath (Untitled III, No 2, 1999). In Hypnosis (1997-2001), Marjaana Kella scrutinises the suspended moment of her hypnotised subjects (Niclas, Hypnosis, 2001).

Such works invite the viewer to investigate the layers of visibility a subject offers, as the ones represented here face the challenged projection of themselves, necessarily defying the notion of self-consciousness in the moment of being photographed.

The viewer’s examination should therefore remain aware of the body’s performative quality.

Images mediate a cultural coding. Acknowledging this dimension, Cindy Sherman’s work reveals how conventionalised appearances are acted out. (Untitled Film Stills, #12, 1978). Through genre performance she portrays gender as the ‘regulatory model’ Judith Butler defines in Gender Trouble (1990). In Sherman’s self-portraits, gender follows an imitative structure influenced by customs and ideals constantly revaluating the ‘corporealisation’ that imaging should set apart from identification.

Portrait photography can be considered the space for interpretation, its definition relying both on the artist’s intention and its relationship to the viewer’s judgment.

Looking at Thomas Ruff series of passport-like photos our longing to identify is frustrated. The person’s character remains a mystery. The quality of those deadpan portraits remains in the subtle signs of interaction, the way the subjects address the camera.

We can therefore witness multiple layers of projection within a portrait: The photographer interprets the sitter’s self-interpretation, and the sitter in return interprets the photographer and viewer’s expectation. Finally, the viewer interprets the overall impersonation.

In the end, the camera doesn’t classify, we do. As spectators we long to read through the subtlety of a face, the grace of gesture, the drama of expression. Portraits fascinate us because of what they could say. Our relationship with portraiture is therefore a subjective and sentimental one. It is easy to understand that more than it renders personality, photography reveals our intimate projections on the surface. We conjure a dialogue, and the desire to relate might in itself be the only possible truth portraiture could deliver.



Céline Bodin is a French photographer. After studying literature and architecture, she graduated from a photography BA at Gobelins, L’école de l’image in Paris. In 2013 she completed a Photography MA at the London College of Communication. As well as regularly writing about photography, her personal practice explores themes of identity, gender, and the metaphysical frustration of the medium in representation.

Suffragettes: Deeds not Words @ NPG reviewed by Kiritia Barker

Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

If we believe the old adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ then feminism has been receiving some great publicity this past few weeks. There was The Sun’s carefully choreographed media stunt which saw the withdrawal and swift reinstatement of ‘Page Three Girls’. Then, following their wins at the Australian Open, tennis players Eugenie Bouchard and Venus Williams were asked to show off their outfits by twirling. Tory peer Karen Brady went on record to say that the word ‘feminist’ is ‘too radical and negative’ for young women to identify with. And finally, The Church of England consecrated its first female bishop, Reverend Libby Lane.

The roots of the British feminist movement are explored in The National Portrait Gallery’s recent display Suffragettes: Deeds not Words. The term ‘suffragette’ was first coined by The Daily Mail to describe a more radical element of the women’s suffrage movement. Suffragettes embraced demonstrations to catalyse social reform often chaining themselves to railings, damaging public buildings and committing arson.

The display features 13 mounted photographs and printed material. Amongst the most striking works in the display is a photograph of a portrait by John Sargent which was slashed by a suffragette. The act of vandalism resulted in many UK museums imposing restrictions on admittance to their galleries. For example, The British Museum enforced a policy of only admitting women if they were accompanied by a man who was willing to take responsibility for the woman’s actions. David Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford, 10th Earl of Balcarress Conservative MP and long serving trustee of the NPG was compelled to write to the director of the gallery. His letter is part of the display and makes for an interesting read.

Internal police documents and surveillance photographs are also featured in the display. Presented in a grid-like formation, the photographs call to mind what one would imagine was the authority’s fantasy line-up of suffragettes. The photograph of actress Kitty Marion stands apart from the others due to the fact it is in fact her acting headshot.

Opponents to the movement argued that the radical actions of the Suffragettes proved them to be unsound decision makers, and therefore inappropriate to vote. In other documents on display, the actions of the Suffragettes are described in emotive language with passages referring to ‘aggressive tactics’, ‘serious vandalism’ and ‘shocking damage’.

The display paints a picture of a time when civil disobedience was an effective device to bring the core issues of the time into the public domain. What the suffragettes would think of how feminist issues make the public domain today, who knows, but as David Lindsay commented on the attack of the NPG portrait it ‘shows how much we really are at the mercy of women who are determined…’


KirKiritiaitia is a visual storyteller at heart and a marketing consultant by trade. She holds a BA from the University of Tasmania and studied Marketing, Advertising & PR at Queens University Belfast.
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Re-picturing the self: Francesca Woodman’s self-portraiture by Francesca Marcaccio

Images courtesy of Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman’s self-portraiture is deliberately enigmatic. If she aspires to be enigmatic, she also employs enigma to challenge the traditions of self-portraiture. Her self-portraits are duplicitous; the clarity of the photograph appears to present an intelligible subject and yet Woodman continually facilitates the subject’s withdrawal from our gaze.

In her self-portraits the artist often pioneered new forms of relational aesthetics aimed towards formal intervention as opposed to a biographical display that might be intended to assert one’s identity. In Self Portrait at Thirteen (Colorado,1972), the artist’s long dark hair obscures her face hindering the camera’s inherent descriptive and informative qualities.Untitled,Providence 1977


In Untitled (Providence, Rhode Island,1975), the artist disappears into herself. Three nude women, one of whom is Woodman, hold photographs of the artist’s face over their own. A fourth print, which differs from the other three, is pinned on the wall beside them.One of the models Sloan Rankin notes that Woodman made a sketch of the idea before executing it photographically. “It is a picture about physical measurement, and Woodman writes, under the sketch, a picture about being my model.”1 Disappearing behind a self-portrait, Francesca Woodman conceals her identity. The image’s focus on surface representation obliterates the spectator’s capacity to identify the subject it represents.


Untitled,New York,1979If the quintessential self-portrait announces this is who I am, the New York series (1979) announces rather I am another, similar to Arthur Rimbaud’s radical announcement of modern identity in the mid nineteenth century. His famous poem ‘Je est un autre’
(I is someone else) has been employed to describe many forms of subversive visions of mutable identity.

In one of the New York images, Untitled (1979) she holds a fishbone against her spine. Here she is not fantasising about being another through a performance of identity, as is the case for Rimbaud; instead her body is read as an autonomous entity but at the same time as part of her surroundings.

Rather than engaging with the well-established medium of portraiture in a conventional manner, Woodman is keenly aware that by altering the medium’s modes one can reveal the most profound truths about the subject.




Image credits: Untitled (Providence, Rhode Island,1975), Untitled (New York 1979).

Francesca Marcaccio (b.1981) is a writer, artist, and curator specialised in photography. She is based in London, UK. Her research focuses on photographic archives and documentary photography and their relationship with issues of memory and history within contemporary art practice.She holds degrees in Art History, Iconographic Research and Photography.Recently she completed the RCA/Curating Conversations Programme.She writes for DUST Magazine and MyTemplArt.