What can a photographic portrait actually tell us? At the most we see a singular fleeting expression that was either concocted by the subject or directed by the photographer. We see a hairstyle, some clothing perhaps, and sometimes the context of environment.
But can a human being ever be so simplified? To sum up a person, or even a particular moment in the life of a person, would be an incredibly complex task. In many modes of photography that would be irrelevant. But in journalism we would still argue that our portraits are out to truthfully represent at least an aspect of a person.
That is a virtually impossible quality to judge though. As the subject we are always trying to present our own imagined version of physical or stylistic selves.
As the photographer we are always interpreting — for right or wrong — that person. We are photographing our own reading of the subject.
Viewers see only what they want to see in a portrait. Judgment is immediate and preconceptions are made.
Yesterday as I drove home listening to NPR’s All Things Considered, a story on a previously unknown photographer caught in my ear.
Robert Bergman, who had worked for 60 years with little recognition, was now featured in Washington, D.C., and New York art institutions. The shows come for his portraits, described — and shown on the Web — as simple, posed images of people found on the street. They come with no contextual information.
“I would say that anytime we meet a person it is impossible for us to not somehow figure out what they are about. We start doing that instinctively,” Bergman said in a comment only available on the audio. “We figure them out by projecting our own fantasies on them. That’s called stereotyping or typologizing. We sentimentalize them even if we think we’re glorifying them.”
Yes, I thought on a second listen, he understands it. We not only do that upon meeting someone, but we do it with even greater eagerness when we look at a portrait. We cannot help but carry our own assumptions and our own histories into a portrait, particularly when we have no context for that person. Had we met them on the street we would have a thousand more clues about them, from their gestures to accent, expression and vocabulary.
I think that’s why we love portraits so much. Few other kinds of images are so much about us as viewers.
Take the ubiquitous image of a third-world child staring at a camera. I once had an editor who inelegantly said as he looked at some portfolios, “I never want to see another picture of a brown kid staring at the camera again.”
His point was to ask what those images — so often found in the work of young photographers returning from their first trip abroad — could ever really say.
But those images are immensely popular among our readers. Many times I have heard people say they “feel a connection” to that subject, as if through silver or ink they are communicating with each other. This happens so readily that the great Sebastião Salgado published a book entirely of third-world children staring at his camera. I have long imagined it as his top seller. People sense pride and dignity, openness, intimacy and many other sentiments in those images. Bergman’s are getting similar reactions.
But are any of those things really there?
Arrive in a remote village or even in suburbia and the kids will stare at you. The crazy tall person with the camera is a fascination and a curiosity. The kid staring picture may also be an easy image for a non-professional to make, as most travelers are shy, slow or uncomfortable to snap pictures on the sly. The eye contact is tacit approval to press the trigger.
Viewers can also be touched by a pained expression, a look of misery or a “haunted gaze.” Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of an Afghan girl with such a gaze has captured the imagination of several generations. It is a phenomenon.
But what was the source of that gaze? The horror of war? Poverty? Oppression? It could well be. Or maybe it’s just a look of surprise to find some foreign-looking stranger aiming a camera at her in a culture where such actions are very rare. I have no idea and no way to judge, really. Our interest is not as much in who she is and what her circumstances may be, as it is in what we imagine or stereotype them to be.
Does anything change with adult portraits? Complex portraits? Environmental portraits? I don’t think so. They are still simply a subject trying to present a P.R. image combined with a photographer trying to directly interpret that subject combined with a viewer attaching too much of themselves to the image’s significance.
That can be interesting art, but potentially skewed documentation. And perhaps it applies to every kind of photograph, with or without a documentary purpose.
The comments of Sarah Greenough, the curator of Bergman’s Washington exhibition confirmed it all and even contradicted Bergman himself. “The end result is that the people sort of seem to reveal their own humanity in front of the camera.”
I disagree. The subjects of Bergman’s work have simply revealed a tiny little story — be it true or false — that they created for his camera. In a game of telephone Bergman selected a moment where he thought he understood that story. And the viewers are the last conveyors of the game’s call with all their subjective misinterpretation in tow.
This isn’t Bergman’s problem. “Well it’s about art,” he said. “I’m an artist, not a social scientist. I’m not a do-gooder. I’m not a documentarian. I’m not a journalist.”
How then, as journalists, can we make a portrait be viable? We do this by understanding well how portraits are seen. We struggle to listen and observe carefully so we don’t misinterpret our subjects or saddle them with our own life experience. We are careful to represent people in ways that are hopefully not mis- or over-interpreted by the viewers.
Can it work?
You tell me.