Sunday, 6 November 2016

It Ain't Me, Babe

I have shared much of my life with two extraordinary women – my partner and our daughter – both of whom, as true contrarians, hate being photographed. This aversion seems to reach right down into that lizard-brain place that enables you catch a falling pencil, or blink just before some insect hits you in the eye. Somehow they can always tell when they are being photographed, however stealthily, and instantaneously turn away, or pull some unflattering grimace that tells you nothing more about the state of their soul than that, yes, they genuinely dislike being photographed.

I've recently been watching my way through successive series of House, M.D. on Netflix, with Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House (great scripts, great characters, appalling sexual politics) and have just watched the series 3 episode "Fetal Position": When a celebrity photographer's unborn child endangers her health, the team must take action before it's too late to save either of them. The main patient being a photographer, the scriptwriters – who have clearly been on that course that insists that all story elements must contribute in some way to the development of the broader story "arcs", some of which are spread over the entire series – have cleverly built in some familiar photographic tropes. It's what makes the best serial soaps so watchable, although sometimes you do yearn for an incident that does not cast a revelatory side-light on this episode's problematic diagnosis, Greg House's character, or the interpersonal dynamics of the hospital staff. Similarly, I bristle a little when a photographer is shown effortlessly capturing character insights into House's team from her hospital bed (toting some gigantic pro Canon DSLR which seems mysteriously to spawn 8" x 10" prints like Polaroids – I'd like one of those), insights which the team themselves do not have about each other until they have seen the photographs. It's what a gifted portrait photographer does, isn't it?

Well, hmm, I don't know about that. For a start, I'm not a huge fan of portraiture, as a genre. Looking through my rather large collection of photobooks, very few of them are primarily books of pictures of people knowingly presenting themselves to a camera in a studio setting. There's an interesting book from way back, Portrait : Theory, from the same Lustrum Press that yielded Landscape : Theory, Contact : Theory, and the two excellent Darkroom books. There are always some nice, semi-formal portraits of unglamorous people posing in their own environments in thematic projects like Chris Killip's Isle of Man, or Alec Soth's Sleeping By The Mississippi. There is a very interesting book of portraits of literary notables by Jonathan Williams, A Palpable Elysium, and a similar but lesser collection of Philosophers by Steve Pyke. I have a couple of the inevitable Avedons (I love In the American West). Oh, and I remember two brilliant collections of tintype portraits, one of surfers, the other of American prison inmates, which I regret not buying, although the "contemporary tintype portrait" has already become something of a cliché. But I can see nothing that required careful makeup, studio lighting and reflectors, or the building of that fabled collaborative rapport with the subject, designed to catch their best, most mysterious smile or their wackiest, off-guard laugh, all with the eyes in sparkling focus. Not one book; it's just not my thing. Most such photos end up in company reports, glossy magazines, or models' portfolios, anyway.

What I'm questioning here is not the authenticity of that temporary human engagement – a cynical misanthrope like Greg House could never earn a living as a portrait photographer – but its intended result: the capture of some revelatory expression, an unsuspected window opened onto the subject's soul. In a way, this is the key aesthetic conundrum of portrait photography: can a perfect rendering of the light reflected from a person's face in a tiny instant of time tell us anything about what is going on behind that facade of skin, muscle and nerve, those tricksy currents flowing through a living fabric of thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, and attitudes? Which is, I suppose, almost (but not quite) the same as asking: can a person's expression tell us anything of those things? It's not quite the same question because, first, expressions take place in time and, second, some of us are better at reading faces than others. An instant snatched from a smile-in-progress may capture something of interest, but never the whole smile. Indeed, it may actually misrepresent the whole expression, even if it does so in an interesting way. And there's an entire area of scientific research dedicated to placing an individual's ability to respond to faces on the various spectrums of EQ, empathy, and affect; some of us are really, really bad at this, and some of us are spookily good.

Although, weirdly, a lot of this research seems to depend on using still photographs of actors. Studio portraits, in fact, of simulated emotions: I'm sad! I'm so happy! Stop bothering me, creep, I'm busy! God, I'm so bored... I don't think it would be controversial to say that such photos tells us absolutely nothing about the real state of mind of the person portrayed; they are about as psychologically penetrating as an emoji. Though I suppose it's possible they may give us an accurate read of the viewer's EQ, should they ever get into conversation with a consummate con-artist. Dr. Greg House, of course, would insist on eliciting the real thing, purely in the interests of accurate diagnosis. "Not so close, please, doctor... Hey, what are you doing with that tripod?? Nooo! Aaargh!!" See? Now that's fear! Curiously, there's another decent TV series with an English actor in the lead – Lie To Me, with Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman – which is entirely based on the proposition that our true emotions are masked by these gross, easily-simulated facial expressions, and are only revealed by reading micro-expressions, using the Facial Action Encoding System. Much more tricky to photograph, and – allegedly – virtually impossible to fake.

In short, I think any claims to display insight into personality by means of photographic portraiture are wildly over-stated, and probably nonsense. Just as stage scenery can convince us we are on the battlements of Elsinor, and an actor can persuade us he is horrified-yet-intrigued by the appearance of his father's ghost, a good portrait photograph can satisfy us that we have seen something insightful, ideally something that the subject would have preferred to have kept concealed. It's what we want to see, and we don't need to resort to psychology, pop or proper, to explain this desire. Rather than Hamlet, let's go to "The Tears of a Clown", by Smokey Robinson:
Now if there's a smile on my face
It's only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now, honey, that's quite a different subject

But don't let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Really I'm sad, oh I'm sadder than sad
You're gone and I'm hurting so bad
Everyone knows about putting on a brave face, smiling through the heartache, and accidentally-on-purpose letting the mask slip. Everyone hopes for a privileged glimpse of the vulnerable person hidden behind the facade; it's our reward for caring about that person (hmm, it seems I may be turning into cynical Dr. House, here). That's in real life, of course. But the problem is that it is entirely the viewer who brings their interpretation to a mere picture. A picture is nothing more than some marks, a set of cues for the viewer to pick up on, and this is so much easier to do when the cues are the components of a human face. Unlike a Rothko colour-field painting, say, which takes some specialised, acquired aptitude to "read", we all already know everything there is to know about faces. But, in truth, we know rather less about the psychology of a flat piece of paper, covered in dots of pigment. I mean, who knows what a photo is thinking or feeling? I certainly don't, but my guess is: absolutely nothing. So, unless the person portrayed is known to you, and you have real feelings about them to bring to the picture, I'd suggest a photograph of someone else's face is actually all about you. It is prompting you to ask yourself: how would I be feeling if I were that person, if I looked like that? And how do I react to that?

In one sense, this is nothing more than a working definition of "empathy". Empathy is what a psychopath, or a drug-dependent misanthrope like Greg House lacks. It can be taken further, however. In Gestalt therapy "dream-work" there is a commonly-used strategy designed to subvert our tendency to view our dreams as a story, one in which things happen to us, and we encounter other people, known, unknown, or uncannily hybrid. This strategy is: everything and everyone in your dream is you. If you dream about a scary room, then it was you who put the scary room in the dream: you are that scary room. It's not a symbol for anything, it's not a prop. So tell me, says the therapist: what does it feel like, for you, to be that scary room? Not to be in it, but to be it. Obviously, a picture made by someone else is not like one of your own dreams. It carries no innate significance provided by you, for you, uniquely. But, perhaps the scope of our taste in art, and maybe even in people, might amount to whatever we are and are not yet prepared to accept as elective aspects – good, bad, and downright ugly – of "me"?

In straight photography we can only work with appearances, and where people are concerned appearances are almost always deceptive. I have already described my experience of being photographed after some time shut in an anechoic chamber back in 2009 (Thoughts From An Anechoic Chamber) and have had no reason to change my mind since. As Dr. House likes to say, everybody lies. Diseases have symptoms, but people have attitudes and secrets. Besides, does anyone any longer believe that appearance correlates, in any way, with internal states of mind, or with personality? That a beautiful person with a bewitching smile must be a good, happy person, and a plain person with crooked teeth and a weight problem must be a bad, unhappy person? If so, these would probably be the same folk who believe that ill-health is the consequence of bad attitudes and inadequately aligned domestic feng shui.

One of the oldest myths of photography is that non-Western peoples shun the camera, because the device is seen as a stealer of souls. I suspect the converse of this is why many people hate to be photographed: their inner sense of self has been violated too often by the images of their physical presence they have seen before. Their "soul" is precisely what is not portrayed in a photograph. It's rather like that disturbing experience of hearing a recording of your own voice; it can bring everything into question to discover that you do not sound and do not look the way you think you do, or at least hoped you might. To be told "but it looks just like you" – even by someone who loves you just the way you are – is no comfort; the cognitive dissonance is too unpleasant. Karl Rove said of Avedon's portrait, "Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up. The portrait is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot." No, Karl, that's just the way you look.

Anyway, this is a good opportunity to offload yet again a favourite anecdote from Dr. Picasso. There must be someone out there who's never heard it.
"Just then my eye was caught by an unframed canvas standing on a shelf above Jacqueline's head and to the right. It was a portrait of a girl—Jacqueline, I would have said—in tones of green and black and white. She was shown in profile, looking off to the left, and Picasso had given the face a mildly geometrical stylization built up of triangular forms which emphasized the linear treatment but at the same time preserved the likeness. I pointed to the painting. 'How would you explain to a person whose training made him look on that as deformation, rather than formation, why you had done it that way?' I asked him.

'Let me tell you a story,' Picasso said. 'Right after the Liberation, lots of GIs came to my studio in Paris. I would show them my work, and some of them understood and admired more than others. Almost all of them, though, before they left, would show me pictures of their wives or girl friends. One day one of them who had made some kind of remark, as I showed him one of my paintings, about how 'It doesn't really look like that, though,' got to talking about his wife and he pulled out a tiny passport-size picture of her to show me. I said to him, 'But she's so tiny, your wife. I didn't realize from what you said that she was so small.' He looked at me very seriously. 'Oh, she's not really so small,' he said. 'It's just that this is a very small photograph. ' "
—Picasso, interviewed in The Atlantic, July 1957
In the best version of the story, which I've never managed to source, Picasso then turns over the photo and exclaims, "My God! You poor man! She's also completely flat!"

© 2011 John and Teenuh Foster 


Martyn Cornell said...

I confess to having no compositional eye, which makes my own photography purely scattergun, the very occasional hit being entirely luck, but fortunately I'm able to recognise others' hits, and I am in total awe of, eg, the late Jane Bown, who seemed to be able to capture something true about the people she photographed with no apparent artifice involved in the setting up of the shot at all.

Mike C. said...


Agreed, though there needs to be a lot of emphasis on "seemed" and "apparent"!


amolitor said...

Are you familiar with the 'theory of mind' ideas? It does seem that we are unreasonably good at reading people's emotions and thoughts from their faces.

I think *also* that we wildly overestimate our ability, and this is what portrait photography capitalises on.

Mike C. said...


Yes, that's pretty much what I mean by "empathy". It's clearly a basic survival skill, especially in crowded noisy pubs, but I have known enough people who are what is politely referred to as "on the spectrum", though, to know how hard some incredibly clever people find it to spot that you are DYING OF BOREDOM listening to them drone on and on...


amolitor said...

Ha ha! I know exactly what you mean! I'm so glad it's not like that between us!

Now as I was saying, by changing over to a metric threads on the mini gubbins we've effectively tripled the wonk rate at only double the cost.