From the myth of the cave of Plato where some people manipulate various objects in front of a light source so they cast their shadows before a group of chained spectators who contemplate fascinate and without questioning the only reality they know, passing through the baroque metaphor of the world as a Great theatre in which humanity represents a role written by the Great Author, to the Western society that progressively globalizes behaviours and acceptable conducts; Philosophy, Arts and Anthropology seem to consider that the reality/world/society on which human beings operate as a kind of scenic space on which individuals have to represent their roles.The behaviour of individuals in the social arena is to a certain extend conditioned by the group or social class to which they belong to, and it will be continuously subject to scrutiny by the others, who will verify and confirm that they comply with the conventions accepted by the group: way to dress and talk, gesture and body expression, meeting places and opinions are the common framework in which the sense of identity and belonging is verified. This is clearly seen in the work of Nikki S. Lee’s “The Chameleon Project”, in which she explores the concept of collective identity mimicking herself as a member of different urban tribes.
Therefore, the public identity of the individuals are conformed on the surface and they have different mechanisms to shape it and thus consolidate their membership in the reference group. This is clear in the use of social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc), which are used by people as a mechanism for individual promotion, a showcase where the individuals presents themselves, for example, through selfie, continuously confirming the acceptance of the group in the count of the number of comments and likes. This is what Anandi Ramamurthy says in his essay “Spectacles and illusions” which finds in social networks elements of continuity with the popular “carte-de-visit” that Disdéri made fashionable from its invention in 1854:
“Today Facebook and Instagram photography continue de conventions of display that express the capitalist promotion of the individual most acutely witnessed through the development of the selfie” (Wells, 2015, p.236)
Precisely in his study of portrait photography in the nineteenth century, Suren Lalvani establishes how, through the costumes and disposition of the subject’s body, a frame of expression of the bourgeois culture of the time is defined, referencing the fundamental values and discourses of the capitalism as nation-state, family and individual:
“Nineteenth-century photographic portraiture constituted its bourgeois subjects within a network of cultural, political, and aesthetic discourses; and the camera operating within a set of technical and political constrains framed and situated the body in term of these discourses, so as to position it within a set of ideological and social relations” (Lalvani, 1995, pp. 47–47)
This theatrical aspect of photography, as a space of representation, is inherent to the photographic medium and Disderí himself pointed out that the photographers should combat this element of theatricality, since the process itself will show us: “the actor where we believed we put The man, the theatrical action where we attempted to place the natural action “. Disderí believes that the camera, due to its inexorable precision, will reveal any attempt to substitute the natural action for a simulated reality represented by actors.
Barthes also points to the transforming capacity of gesture and the attitude of the camera when the subjects know the lens observes them.
“[..]once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice” (Barthes, 2001).
In addition, he confirms the intentionality and artificiality of the pose in the photographic ritual, as a way of delivering our image to the public scrutiny, in what he calls the social game. In any case, this static, rigid, motionless image will never match the actual image of the individual.
This theatrical character of portrait photography, which according to Michael Fried’s analysis of Western painting is dialectically opposed to an absorptive approach such as in documentary photography, is the starting point of this assignment. In its initial conception, the project explores how through the gesture and a single accessory element that the photographer places on the scene, the sitter models different characters. With the collaboration of the actor Jorge de Arcos, the use of a chair as an element that models and gives unity to the series, and the expressive resource of exaggeration, I constructed a series of portraits of the persona-actor, and that, as a kind of pantheon of caricatures, represent twelve different scenes of a comedy.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
In this second work of the course, I have used symbolism as an element that gives meaning to the complete series, and after the initial conception of the project, discussed below in the context area, I prepared a draft of the project and contacted the actor Jorge de Arcos, with whom I discussed the essential aspects of the project. In addition to the theoretical work to contextualize the project, much of the practical work focused on the details of renting the studio, coordinating studio and actor calendars, getting the chairs (which kindly lent me a local pub called the Jazz Gallery from Vigo), and editing the huge number of pictures that I took during the photographic session.
The technique and management of studio lighting equipment were completely unknown to me, but Antonio Gutiérrez, a experienced photographer and the studio owner, quickly explained the basic operation of all the equipment, and within a few minutes I was familiar with them. One of the doubts I had was whether I should use a white or black background, and finally I opted for the white as a way to highlight more the actor’s gestures and body expressions; The actor and the chair are the only elements found in the scene, and the white background creates a feeling of isolation that fits perfectly to my intention.
I rented the studio in DINAMOCoworking for four hours, so I did not have much time to experiment with light and maybe get better effects, although in general, I think I solved my first experience of studio photography quite reasonable.
Quality of outcome
I am very satisfied with the result obtained in this second assignment, and although it supposes a radical change with all that I have done so far, I believe that it explores a new way of doing photography that I had not imagined just 3 months ago. Working in collaboration with other artists is an interesting and very enriching experience, and although the project was initially devise with a more serious or dramatic character, the histrionic vis that Jorge printed to the characters seems to give a new and interesting point to the whole series.
Throughout the session I took over 600 photographs, and the editing process included several possibilities; One of the options that I considered was to create groups of vignettes formed by 3 photographs that tell a small story, micro-stories let’s say. For example, the story of the suicide shows a man who is determined to commit suicide from the top of the chair, rises to the chair with determination, but slowly begins to vacillate, until finally all his romantic impetus is reduced to a smothering fear and cowardice.
Finally, and considering that the assignment is about portraiture, I decided to select 12 photographs that show a series of different personages characterized by the actor. Although I was asked only for five photographs, I believe that the development of the idea would be incomplete with such a small number of photographs. In fact, I think that with the number of photographs and scenes available I could perfectly edit a photo-book or even organize an exhibition. Contact sheets include more than 600 photographs that correspond to the entire session. To illustrate the way on which the session unfolded, I made a video footage of the scene of the suicide:
I have decided to process the photographs in black and white; the main reason is aesthetic, but I have also considered that the series puts the accent on body expression and gesture, and in this sense, the colour does not provide any additional information.
Demonstration of creativity
I consider that the way on which the portrait of the subject is conceived is original and imaginative. I did not consider this portraiture assignment in the traditional way of a posing session with a model. Each of the characters was previously planned and discussed with the actor, who also made some interesting contributions. When I introduced the project to Jorge, we considered it as a kind of performance, in which an actor had to show his ability to create different characters. Although it may seem to be a kind of staged photograph, the series is conceived and developed as a portrait of an artist, a study of his ability to transform himself into different characters.
The inclusion of the chair as an element that models each scene seems to me a narrative resource that has a lot of potential in photography, and it would be worth to study how the relation of different elements in the scene significantly alters the meaning of each photography. In portrait photography the chair is an accessory that has been present in many ways throughout the history and the use I have made in my work extends in a remarkable way the possibilities of the element and its ability to alter the context and meaning of the scene, influence the gesture of the subject and distributes the visual weight of the composition between the two main elements of the composition: the subject and the chair.
Here is a tentative list of the characters and situations I worked out for the photo-performance:
- “Deadpan” chair; Basic, and without expression the subject sits on the chair. Position strictly frontal to the camera.
- Straddling the chair. As in Nadar’s portrait of Alexander Dumas.
- Variations of the previous pose as in the “Cabaret Chair” or a somewhat more casual pose.
- The “dandy” chair; How to sit arrogant and haughty; straight back, crossed leg, with ankle resting on the opposite knee … Air of distinction.
- Thinking Chair: Although there is no evidence of being in a chair, Rodin’s thinker is sitting.
- Chair of anger: This would be very unusual for a portrait … chair fallen on the ground, and the subject in a state of agitation, irritation…
- It can be represented in different degrees, and at its highest level can be a good example of “collapsing”.
- Electric Chair and torture
- Casual chair: Sitting on side and arm resting on backrest …
- Western Chair: Chair is a western invention and for some cultures / societies can be understood as a symbol of colonialism. The subject sits on the floor overwhelmed by the presence of the chair..
- Chair to conspire. See Donald Trump.
- Chair and the subject standing. It is the person’s prerogative to sit down. Some will consider sitting as a gesture of weakness. On this, different relations can be established between the position of the subject and the chair. Pride?
- Manspreading chair. It can be interpreted as a gesture of disrespect, domination or simply machismo.
- Suicide chair. An indispensable accessory for hanging. Without being very explicit, intentionality can be represented.
- Radical chair. Feet on the chair and sitting on the back.
- Revolutionary chair: It can also serve to pronounce a rally in an assembly of workers.
- Single chair. If three chairs are available, the subject occupies only one of them.
- Courtesy chair. The subject offers the chair to the viewer.
- Abandoned chair. The chair is covered with a sheet and the subject leaves the room.
The inspiration of this work is based on two sources:
- The portrait of Donald Trump recently published for the cover of TIME magazine, that has been the subject of various readings and interpretations: the position of the chair back to the viewer and Trump’s pose turning somewhat forced towards the camera as if he were caught red-handed, is interpreted as a conspiratorial gesture; another readings suggest that the pose, sitting on a chair, is very similar to portraits of other dictators and megalomaniac politicians, and it reveals some aspects of Trump’s arrogant personality.
- The series of portraits that Daniel Meadows made in the study of Graeme Street, where he used a rudimentary dark background and a chair as the only elements to model each of the portraits. Almost all the subjects were portrayed sitting on the chair, with the exception of a man wearing a raincoat who decided to pose standing, as if ignoring the presence of the chair. In my assignment, there are also a references to Meadows’ work “The Smoking Room” (Picture #3 – Visit to the Asylum), and a Robert Frank’s photo from the book “The Americans” (Picture #8 – The Negotiator).
Lalvani, S. (1995) Photography, vision, and the production of modern bodies. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Clarke, G. (ed.) (1992) The portrait in photography. Seattle, Wash., USA: Distributed in USA and Canada by the University of Washington Press.
Wells, L. (ed.) (2015) Photography: A critical introduction. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Barthes, R. (2001) Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography. New Library Press.Net.