Thursday, 9 February 2012

A portrait

Sporadically I have used Jeff as a sitter and over the past few years I have photographed him in various poses and places. Jeff has also featured greatly in the coverage I have made of "The Reunion". I have pulled these photographs together as an alternative "Portrait - assignment 1". The first shot, against a white paper background to isolate him - his brief was to wear something he felt comfortable in and stand relaxed. I had thought of cropping tighter - but that de-contextualises him in a somewhat barren context! The layout of these images have been carefully thought about, to try and make each level of shot "talk" to each other, as it were. For example the full frontal at the top, depicting "all" of Jeff, whereas shot 2 appears to watching himself perform.

Left - at the first rehearsal shows Jeff focussing on the role, his director(s) and left, rehearsal five and "in role". Both shots below are again in role, showing disparate aspects of the character.

The next layer depicts Jeff listening to himself read?

 I've included this shot, despite the use of exotic technique (HDR) as it does seem to express a view of Jeff that is recognisable. This is a  pose and works best in isolation, however the feeling of confrontation is contrary to Jeff's natural character.

The next three shots come from rehearsal five and are taken in quick succession, depicting various "animations" in his role. The fourth shot in the quartet is a profile shot as he watches events on stage - I guess this is Jeff as much as the first photograph. The position of the profile shot appears to have him studying the various guises of his stage personna.

 A close up left, again in character, counter pointed with him in motion as part of the "Assignment 8" from Roswell Angier. Jeff left looks incredulously on at the right hand Jeff

 Whereas these last three images come from a single session using a single tungsten lamp, working with contrast. All of these photographs have the point of focus on the one eye or another. The technique was to use a narrow depth of field (all these are f2) and by the placement of the lamp to redact the facial elements from the image. I had made these studies before I read the text by Angier and his chapter on a self portrait without a face. I hadn't intended to remove any part of Jeff's face, rather to highlight particular elements of his face and continue with this process until it removes the recognisability of the subject.

I am still struggling with the concept that the portraitist can elicit a view of the subject that expresses to "a" viewer an "essence", an "air". I am still of the opinion that the viewer brings with them the "view".
If we look at Karsh and one of his most famous images that of Churchill. We are lucky that Karsh has written some accompanying text. But what do we who see Churchill "see"? We know of course of his role in the second war, we know less of his role in the Sidney Street siege, we know of his role as a senior statesman on the world stage.

The Sidney Street Siege, 1911 (b/w photo)
English Photographer, (20th century)
Private Collection - Bridgemam
 He had an "imperious"quality, he relished in the public view that he was a great leader and we see that in Karsh's portrait. I have seen the print in Ottawa, along with other Karsh portraits where they hang in the Chateaux Hotel (where he had a studio) nearby the Parliament building. It is set high and the viewer has to look up to view it, enhancing it's particular power. It has the appearance of a painting, it is set in a large frame emphasizing it's grandeur. There have been many formal painted portraits of Churchill, the approach that "Winnie" had to having his portrait made must have been relaxed - so maybe the view we have of him via Karsh's image is his "air" because of that. Some more portraits of Churchill:

Winston Churchill aged five, from 'A Roving Commission by Winston S. Churchill', published by...
English School, (19th century)
Private Collection - Bridgeman

Winston Spencer Churchill in 1904 (b/w photo)
English Photographer, (20th century)
Private Collection - Bridgeman

Winston Churchill with his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (b/w photo)
English Photographer, (19th century)
Private Collect - Bridgeman

Sir Winston Churchill as a Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars in 1895 (photogravure)
English School, (19th century)
Private Collection - Bridgeman

At the time Karsh took his photograph Churchill was 65, there were already multiple portraits of him, painted and photographic as well as cartoon. I would think that he knew exactly how he would pose; Karsh was told, apparently in no uncertain terms, that he could expose one frame. I don't think Karsh captured Churchill's "essence" I think Churchill gave it to him. Certainly Karsh had set the lights, exposed correctly, printed it expertly - but that "hand on the hip" pose, looking slightly down the nose, looks practised to me.
Amitabh Bachchan - Bridgeman
I think therefore that all (formal) portraits of famous or infamous people are vested with a public "air". The persona that rests in the image has either been carefully nurtured or has entered the public consciousness via some circuitous route to inform us all. It might be worth some research to look at icons in other societies to see if, for example Amitabh Bachchan "Big B", the most famous film star on the planet "speaks" to us, delivers to us an "air" or whether because they are not known to us that their "essence" is invisible to us.
What does this (albeit small) portrait tell us? For most westerners probably not a lot; but for asians and especially in the sub-continent it is a huge story. With a life that reads like a soap opera and whose every move and image is precisely managed, all portraits of him are tethered to a specifically controlled message or meaning. The portraitist has no power whatsoever to delineate their own narrative and is only a tool in the wider process of image control. But the west has no real view of "BigB" so what do we (the westerners) read into his image, we who are free from subversion from the Indian media? A google search will produce a million images - try not to read any of the accompanying text if you do to see whether you "get" him. I have really enjoyed some of his movies, which are classics in the largest movie industry on the planet.

There is a link between Jeff and Bachchan, they both have grey beards and both can lay reasonable claim to be actors. But whilst Jeff wouldn't say he was close to penury, the riches BigB has had, lost, and has again, are beyond the dreams of not only his fellow citizens in India but also that of most of the world's population.

More to think about in the search for the truth behind the smile.


  1. What a wonderful face to use as a model. The three low light portraits bring out a completely different dimension.

    I looked briefly at several sites re Amitabh Bachchan. He's a fine looking man, although his hair doesn't match his beard! I can't read any 'personality' into him though. Maybe that's the thing about being an 'actor'. Some people always play themselves - like John Wayne or Harrison Ford for instance, whereas others mould themselves into someone else - like Meryl Streep.


    1. Thanks Catherine, yes, Jeff does have a plasticity about him and I have been lucky to have him (and his wife) sit for me over the years - they are very trusting of me. As for BigB it is (now) rather curious to see his beard white and his hair very dark brown (I think dyeing it black is a bit of a no, no). His face is ubiquitous in India, on a lot of billboards, on television and in all the celebrity magazines - he dwarfs Hollywood stars in popularity levels, but in the west he is hardly known. Maybe if I was from Mumbai I might be able to "read" him, but I think maybe you are right about the Meryl factor in his case.