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Serious Portraits of 'Everyman' ...

May 22, 2017

 

On January 7, 1839, astonished members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's (1787–1851) singular experiments with (what would later be termed) photography. Photography seemed miraculous, nature given the power to record herself, the magic mirror, the fixation of the very light that had passed reflected through the lens. However, there was some disappointment that portraits were, in those early stages at least, almost impossible due to the length of exposure. That obstacle was soon overcome as better equipment and the development of the latent image paved the way for shorter exposure times. Photography, along with so many other manifestations of the genius of the European mind in that most remarkable century, had arrived. The image of 'everyman' was born.

 

Photography has, since that mysterious, esoteric birthing in 1839, now become ubiquitous. So too has the image of ourselves as the photograph marks each moment of our lives and increasingly is shared with family, friends and associates via social media. In 1839, the number of photographs that existed in the world might have fitted into the pocket of your frock coat. A mere 178 years later it is estimated that 1 trillion photographs could be made this year alone. With such proliferation, the process of a formed or projected identity has similarly mutated.

 

In this age of the 'selfie' the dignity and projection of a still, thoughtful, serious self, has been eroded. It is quite a different state of affairs to the sitters who stared fixedly back at the photographer's lens in the past. The sternness of those images cannot be simply attributed to the length of time these exposures took - by the end of the century exposure times were a fraction of a second yet the portrait photograph remained a serious business. The event of the portrait was an embodiment of status, position, character. These photographs were, as Alex Kurtagić has noted, 'eximious examples of physiognomic severity.'

 

Physiognomy was once important. At a glance the trained eye could tell something about the sitter. The character, resolution, worthiness of the person could be read. The shape of the nose, the jaw, the size of the forehead, the intensity of the eyes - all could, it was believed, demarcate the particularities of the sitter's origins, their faith, their politics, their very being. When one went before the portrait lens the outcome, the presentation, was crucial.

 

Physiognomy in photographic portraiture arguably reached its apotheosis in Germany between the first and second world wars. It was not limited by politics or philosophy but was broadly applied as a measure of the 'new man'. This physiognomic fad halted for a time the growing Modernist trend in photographic portraiture of breaking down a readable face and creating a non-physiognomic or abstract visage as in photodynamism or vortography. With the new photography in Germany the physiognomic elements were re-inserted and, as the practice intensified after 1933, racial character became a firm part of physiognomic recognition.

 

Today, such arguments seem distant and as belonging to another time. Physiognomy is discredited. When we pose for our photograph it has become the tendency these days to demonstrate what a genuine person we are by beaming at the camera, by delivering a toothy smile. Even politicians  (or politicians in particular) cannot help but try to project their 'trustworthiness' and 'warmth' in their photographs even when these are official representations of their status. Photographic portraits have become 'nice'. If we stare sternly at the lens we are likely to be asked to smile, if we do not, our seriousness will be puzzled at, cause consternation or worse mirth. Today, to be serious is to suggest theatricality or self-importance. The portrait photograph is no longer intended to be read, pondered upon, scrutinised - now it is to be glanced at, a cursory facade of the animated internet self. Social media has contributed to this informal, upbeat, 'nice' image of its consumers. In the plethora of the mass-produced, blandness is assured. 

 

 

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