IAP A1: adjusting my approach

I had never previously met any of these people when I photographed them, but their occupations were obvious from our meeting in all but one case. At first I was uncertain how I would or could connect the individual images to make a coherent series. The only thing I was sure about was that I was hoping to capture a direct, neutral gaze to camera, like Thomas Ruff’s 1980s series of head and shoulders portraits (Ruff, 1990), because I felt that this kind of image had more potential for creating a series and was likely to be more revealing of character and identity than one in which the subject was smiling or looking away from the camera. I also felt that framing the images predominantly in the head and shoulder area would again offer more potential for creating a series by reducing the amount of potentially disruptive background clutter, and of course it was much easier to connect with and direct my subjects than if I’d been standing far enough away from them to make full-body portraits.

It was clear from the feedback I received to my first attempt at creating a series from these images that a significant proportion of reviewers felt the images were more about me than the subjects. On reflection I realised that these reviewers were correct, and that I had been trying to communicate something about the way I saw and read these people rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. That had not been my intention, but I could see that cropping the images so drastically did not do what I’d hoped and did not provide the viewer with enough information to make their own assessment of the subjects’ characters.

After thinking about how to adjust my approach, I decided to present the images in a way that would make the subjects’ facial features fully accessible to the viewer and would also explore the impact of captions on viewers’ readings of the portraits. I was interested in the extent to which captions might change the impressions offered by the images, and also wondered whether it would make any difference if the captions were clearly inaccurate or untrue. With these aims in mind I created alternating pairs of captions for my five subjects which made contrasting claims about the subjects’ occupations and also about other more personally-determined signifiers of identity.

The idea of alternating captions had occurred to me after I noticed that the titles of some of August Sander’s portraits seemed to conflict with my impression of the people portrayed in the images, an observation I thought particularly interesting in the current climate of propaganda and disinformation. I also had in mind the shift away from public definitions of identity that has taken place in the period since Sander’s portraits were made, and the fact that a person’s occupation is no longer the useful shorthand for describing, defining and understanding character that it was in Sander’s time. Today we are more likely to describe ourselves and understand others in terms of personal tastes and inclinations.

I also wanted to make the most of the information available to the viewer in the portraits themselves, and to this end I sharpened the images in Photoshop so that pores, spots and thread veins were clearly visible. I felt this gave a sense of intimacy that would assist the viewer’s sense of personal connection. In this respect I was looking for a kinder and less extreme version of the way Bruce Gilden tends to present his subjects (Gilden, 2013), as opposed to the softer, slightly airbrushed look of Ruff’s 1980s portraits. I also desaturated the blue background of the angler’s beach tent to make the image more coherent with the others.

References and resources

Gilden, B. (2013) A Complete Examination of Middlesex. London: Archive of Modern Conflict.
Ruff. T. (1990) Portretten Huizen Sterren/des Portraits des Maison des Etoiles/Porträts Hauser Sterne. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.