Notes and thoughts from The Theatre of the Face


  • The face is where we are – Jonathan Miller
  • Face is active even in repose
  • Portrait photography = frozen moments
  • Modern communication has changed the static viewpoint, fixed by class and race of the Victorian times, laced by expectations of propriety to impulsive/nosey vision
  • But still a question about what you can learn from a single instant, an isolated moment
  • In photography the power is divided between the sitter and the photographer, but exactly what will be caught is unknown
  • And how does candid imagery fit in?
  • Nowadays photographers bring their own thoughts into the images
  • Self-portraits allow for all possibilities, masquerades, theatre, gender changes
  • Portraits tell stories, even/especially in social reform pictures
  • Some show stereotypes, others get beneath them
  • Portraits show mortality and memory

Early 20th Century

  • Major changes
  • Wars and riots, civil unrest, mass movement of people
  • Changes in technology, international exhibitions, mass production
  • Marxism, suffrage, the middle class
  • Loss of euro centricity in the arts, Freud, the id and the ego
  • The camera became user friendly and available
  • Often middle class
  • Pictures to record customs eg Benjamin Stone, role-players, showing what is soon to be past
  • Pictures to record different cultures (although how real they were is questionable)
  • Tableau’s were staged, for political reasons or to show the world how good things were eg Francis Benjamin Johnston
  • The image of the exotic other
  • Curtis and the Native American peoples, recording a way of life, but? alienating it. Pictorialist images, soft focus, but how real were the images
  • Chambi taking pictures of own culture, often with odd captures, the female bullfighter, the smoker in the graveyard
  • Casasola takes news images, social documentary, pictures of dictators, new things!
  • Hine’s images of immigrants, child workers, faces of the children, a clear bond with the subjects, a liberal idealist, empathetic
  • Storyville images of prostitutes, unpolished, background showing, sad but appealing, surprisingly warm
  • Development of the culture of the celebrity, things previously private became public
  • Pictorialists made images more idealised and poetical, the sitters looked ethereal, other worldly, used soft focus to give symbolist ideas.
  • Stieglitz took mainly images of friends, used natural light, showed melancholy, lyrical nature, careful positioning, women especially beautiful, looked for their essence, studied their faces, looked for a timeless moment

Introversion of the Self

  • I worry about who I am, therefore, I guess, I am (William Ian Miller)
  • Development of the photobooth – what do people think about seeing a photo of themselves. immediately – pre selfie age, make faces. Pretend to be someone else, very different from commissioned portraits, fun? Silly? Tend to be stereotypical, not self-reflective
  • Artists try to explore their inner self, often wary, haunted eg Egon Schiele 9 self portraits
  • Use of caricature, human face blending with animal,
  • Futurists – aimed at shattering perceptions of time and space, multi-layering of images, and use of multiple reflections, disruption of time
  • Multiple images taken involving mirrors, reflections and the camera in the image eg Ilse Bing, how important is the sitter, or does the camera and mirror hold more importance?
  • Self portraits can be voyeuristic – who are they meant for – the artist or the viewer? You can pretend to be anyone, anything, any gender. Infinite possibilities of exploration
  • What is then true? everybody has a range of personalities depending on situation Many artists choose to change their name. Does that mean the person also changes?
  • Claude Cahun, multiple guises, deadpan faces, tell little about her life or the real person
  • What is self-portraiture then? anxiety, fear, narcissism? an escape from ‘real’ life? A courageous act?

Shades of Valour: development of irony, and where it might be successfully used

  • Propaganda- use of images to say what you want others to hear – an icy instrument whose influence is pathological, truth becomes hostage to the powers (Ellul)
  • Images of humans came to be personified by an ideology – if the cause was social justice – a deprived individual must look worthy of it. – led to the common man v. The confident leader
  • Led to archetypes of race and class eg migrant mother and Churchill
  • Development of magazines – picture post, Life etc with often paparazzi images, taken ta least semi covertly
  • Portraits were often taken to represent the environment eg underworld, agrarian poverty, demonstrations by the people (Capa)
  • Confident stance, taken from lower down – chin juts
  • Early documentation of the people in conflicts – eg Spanish civil war (again Capa)
  • Street image s- Cartier-Bresson, also Doisneau- both very different CB – upper class and travelling randomly, Doiseau – working class and identified with his subjects- shared values
  • Also other views of Paris – Brassai – vagrants and underworld, people interacted with him, not the candid images they sometimes appear to be
  • Brandt does similar thing in Britain – images are almost tactile, studies contemporary English mores (1930’s) , he had an interesting what he found in the slums – although was upper class himself.
  • Vishniac – images of the Jews in their communities just before the Nazi pogroms, empathetic to his own people – despair
  • Same time as image taken by the FSA – but different ideals – deprived yes, but still part of America, no money a different type of despair (Walker Evans, Ben Shahn) took images of people but also objects and places – looking at societal needs
  • Miyatake – took pictures in Japanese interment camps, children and teenagers carrying out same rituals as the Americans outside
  • Walker Evans took hi subway images – circumspect images, from a man who was anti-corporate
  • Weegee was not circumspect took pictures wherever he saw them exposed human nature, underworld and glamour of crime – sensationalism .
  • A time of worry! Painted on the faces across USA and Europe- harsh reality or a film set, or both
  • Development of fans clubs around the idols of the time, a polished illusion, a fantasy,
  • Fashion images also increasing, excelled with graphic design, appealed to the middle classes while in reality only affordable by the upper class, a charade as the models themselves were not important only their ability to show off the clothes (Beaton an exception as showed the person as well) – ‘camp’

The Sander Effect

  • The relationship between the portraitist and the sitter is not intimate (usually). The sitter is human material. The sitter is shapes and patterns as well as a person. Formal portraiture acts to animate the sitter and there is a risk involved.
  • Viewers look for stories and become bored if there is nothing
  • Early small-town portrait studios – the photographer was a craftsman and understood the social background of his subjects, they are respectful, and people dress their best for them
  • Many photos taken simply as records- or to send to men overseas, factual, minimal posing, but how were the photographers involved – some distant some part of the society and this would later the tone of the images
  • Sander! Interested in the condition of the sitter, rather than their emotional life. The type of the person, representations rather than individuals. All classes and sexes were treated the same. The classes are shown by their clothes and accoutrements, beautifully detailed. He takes them as they are, without encouraging any change.
  • Penn – Indians in Cusco – much more sensuous, looked for decorative people. Mixed fashion, minimalism and still -life together. Not really looking at the individuals, or even the realities of their society. Different when he was taking famous figures – allowed them their individuality.
  • Avedon– increasingly theatrical (good taste didn’t matter). Fame was important. Larger than life. Not kind! Many of his portraits imply mental illness – or seem to. In old age portraits he shows every wrinkle. People of the American west – shows judgement and squalor.
  • Arbus – ‘all families are creepy in a way’ , her proposal for her Guggenheim Fellowship talked about ‘A Study of American Rites, Manners and Customs’ and described all the things that would be of interest in a small town – but that was certainly not how she took them! An introspective reporter – if open can be both. The families all slightly off kilter, the loners who are all rather odd. Her images of the disabled are usually surprisingly kind, unlike those of the ‘normals’– where she would strip away their pretences. Leading to her ‘uncomfortable sense of wonder’. Consider R.D. Laing – normal=alienation, unconsciousness.
  • Sander’s work informed that of Arbus and Avedon – but was dissimilar in that they took on board psychological readings of the people not just their work.

Insiders and their Cultures:

  • Portraits always local – of their time and space with cultural markers
  • Cold War allowed the possibility of crossing boundaries and showing that stereotypes should be questioned
  • Reportage/news showed disaster areas, but other photographers looked at more confined/personal images looking at faith, ethnicity, class etc
  • Images of suburbia (Bill Owens) and less well-off areas (Martin Parr/Daniel Meadows)
  • Are you a participant in the ‘rite’s or an observer? Insider or not? Neal Slavin – American – looking at British (actually English) social groups – but all looked at ‘normal’ activities
  • Where does carnival fit in – Cristina Garcia Rodero with images of occult/quasi- religious practices in Spain.
  • Mexican images that cross between religion and ethnicity. Graciela Iturbide flouting taboos (Magnolia). Two different classes (for want of a better word) spread across the generations
  • Disaster images – compassion fatigue – Salgado and his work on refugees and economic migrants, the tribulation of communities – beautification of tragedy – but why assume poor photographs are any better?
  • Joseph Koudelka and gypsies – he was at home with them but does not glamourise them, personal images not a study of ethnographics, becomes an insider
  • Brenner on the Jewish diaspora, same religion but looked at them from the outside
  • Shelby Lee Adams – Appalachian Portraits – dark, ? Virulent – how well does he know them – Similar to Arbus images – but very different as more prepared and less instinctive.
  • How do you show madness – Erdinger with fear, Fellini out of? love
  • Privilege and the rich – again – how to show it? Refined, gay abandon, riches everywhere?
  • Family albums, stories told from Nan Goldin on. Verene with his extended visual diary of his family and friends

Celebrities to nonentities

  • In 80’s change of portraiture to look not just at who and where, but also why and to use a degree of imagination to show this
  • Construction of contradictions such as Groves reworking of the migrant mother image
  • Role of photoshop and unnatural smoothing of skin, equivalent to use of plastic surgery
  • Reworking of previous images and paintings – often including the artist themselves. Why? Looking at issues of race etc or need for notoriety? Morimura
  • Warhol’s images, tragedy or show biz? Detached or degraded? Objectification of people and images. Flesh that does not create desire.
  • Mapplethorpe different – he does show desire, craftsmanship, also consider Hujar and Candy Darling
  • Showing changes in body, whether real or imagined, using themselves as the canvas, looking at alter egos (Duane Michals). Images of approaching death, or even post-mortem. What is the role of religion especially Catholic in these images? Or more in the thoughts of the photographers?
  • What is the involvement of the ego? Samaras? A voyeur? Acting and mimicry -? Cindy Sherman whose photos do not allude to her own persona – an actress
  • What about when the portrait is of someone unknown- Boltanski – what does that make us feel? Photo is an agent of memory – but that is only true when we know what we are memorising.?
  • What about mixed faces – Nancy Burson – doesn’t give as much as a single image, that face is diluted, vaguely familiar
  • Late 20th c – constructed faces and people – don’t feel real
  • Blank – forward facing images, Ruff, Dijkstra, – look for total objectivity, but what. If anything, does that say about the person? No personal relationship.
  • DiCorcia – more involved, Baroque

The mystery of individuals


Kozloff, M. (2007). The Theatre of the Face : Portrait Photography since 1900. London: Phaidon.

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