The Falseness of Portraits
April 29, 1995
The art of portraiture has been with us from the earliest times -- witness the Egyptian sarcophagi, the Roman busts, Medieval paintings and modern day photographs. We have been fooled into believing that these images, particularly photographic likenesses, reveal "some aspect of the sitter's character" (Halsman) and that they can give us "knowledge of spiritual fact." (Borcoman) This is false. Three factors prove that portraits have no validity. These are: the amount of time portrayed, the act of posing, and the mutability of the background.
Portraits misrepresent people because they only show a fraction of a second in that person's life. Occasionally, a photographer may combine several exposures or keep the shutter open for a longer time but despite that the result only represents the smallest fraction of that person's life. More importantly, the image is still. The human face, due to its complex musculature, can literally produce a million expressions. The portrait photographer snatches one of those faces and seals it in a two dimensional print and claims: "This is X." The image-maker arrests the animation of the face and chooses a single expression, a single self. Even a series of portraits does not give a real idea about the nature of the sitter because only a handful of those million expressions are shown.
Then add body language to the mix. Combining the number of faces and physical gestures and stances produces an uncountable and unrepresentable variety of poses. The portrait photographer asks us to accept one image as being representative of a wide range of faces and gestures. And this doesn't even address the point that a person is much more than just a series of faces and gestures.
The second important reason for throwing portraiture out is posing. Thrusting a camera in a person's face changes their behaviour. The sitter tries to portray the person he/she wants others to see. So not only does the image represent a fraction of a second it represents a posed fraction of a second. Some would object and say that we always pose; we constantly present one of our many selves to the world. We are always acting. This may be true but regardless, the combination of lenses and film that is a camera heightens posing. We've all seen photographs of people mugging to the camera, looking stony faced, or smiling unnaturally.
The changeability of the background is the third reason for dispensing with the concept of portraiture. Put an elderly gentleman in a library and he becomes a scholar or a political leader. But dump him in the street and he is transformed into a vagrant. Our reading of the background and how we subsequently contextualize the sitter completely changes what the portrait means to us. The portrait lacks any kind of truth because although the person may not change if the background does the sitter becomes a completely different person to the viewer.
So we must rid ourselves of the idea of showing "a deep psychological insight" (Halsman) through portraiture. People pictures represent in only a brief moment one of a million faces and poses. Additionally, the background can be changed to produce any meaning imaginable. Does this mean I will stop taking photographs of people? No. I will keep making these images because they interest me visually but I won't pretend to reveal any deep insights into the sitters' personalities.
Avedon, Richard. Portraits. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976.