2021-02-08 17:04:04 – Photography: The Key Concepts

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The French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon Nadar, for example, took up the function of a traditional portrait artist: the need to satisfy a sitter with a society portrait that idealized the sitter for future generations, or, in the case of public society figures (who we now call “celebrities”), for their adoring public to look up to or even to buy copies of. Nadar brilliantly combined the existing formal rules of aristocratic portrait painting with the intimacy of the Daguerreotype studio portrait, thus satisfying the demand for images by an emergent bourgeoisie who wished to be both modern (photography) and traditional (aristocratic posture, style, and setting).

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André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri’s invention of the carte-de-visite in the 1850s did for the slightly poorer (middle-class) “masses” what Nadar and others had done for the wealthier clientele.

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It is perhaps the peculiar combination of social and personal features involved in portraits that lends them their special fascination in relation to questions of identity, even where the persons in the photographs are anonymous. Indeed, one might say that their being anonymous in fact promotes the enigma surrounding the persons in portraiture photographs, even where they have no explicit visual dignity.

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Having your portrait taken is one way to see yourself recognized as a permanent person, a visual image as a representation of the self

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The physical appearance of an individual was assumed to be evidence that they were typical of a certain social type, whose psychology was indexed to their appearance and could be read from that visual profile.

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expressive conventions are coded as a matter of cultural, social, and personal convention;

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they have little to do with the idea of any genetic disposition to “criminality” or other theory of “phrenological” analysis of social character. Craniology, which restricted itself to physiological measurements is still operational in biometric measurements

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In effect, the use of the five elements (face, pose, clothing, location, props) and their combined relations in the picture are what organizes the rhetoric of a portrait.

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Such logic depends on stereotypes, the typical features of signs. Stereotypes, like genres, help to organize our expectations about a character, hence actors and actresses are often chosen to play parts where their face already signifies a basic set of social and personal characteristics anticipating their performance.

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we know that these are “expressions” and not necessarily indicative of a fixed state of being. Yet

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we may still try to read beyond these surface characteristics in portrait photographs, because we know they are not permanent states. They are temporary or even merely “masks.”

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postures are “read” in combination. It is the job of the portraitist to spot or direct these combinations, to understand (or control?) what they signify together. A

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Just as the expression on a face is the rhetoric of mood, so the pose contributes to the signification of character, attitude, and social position. How people carry their body—posture—and convey it in gesture can be read as “embodying” their psychological attitude, pointing to a social or sociological grouping and revealing anthropological (ethno-cultural) habits. Rarely do portraits involve simply one of these; more often than not, they will combine aspects of all of them (individual, social, anthropological).

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The meaning given to the scene, figure, pose, and expression arrive all at once, a conjunction of different messages simultaneously.

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In this respect, the compression and composition of these elements into a photograph makes it complex, and provides a sophisticated rhetorical form and set of aesthetic effects, from which the demand or drive arises that the spectator look at the picture.

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Bookmark

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Yet, despite this, the problem of “appearance” and “reality” or surface and depth is not entirely the right question or issue, since it leaves the intentionality of the spectator out of the equation, a point that I will return to shortly.
Recognition

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repeating something already known offers pleasure as a kind of “short circuit” thinking, as assurance that things are the same.

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pleasure in looking (scopophilia)

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Thus, human identity (social, sexual, political) is always a precarious structure, precisely an identification (process) that is subject to “others.”