The ubiquitous nature of the photographic portrait brings unique challenges to the study of identity and place. It is a broad genre with seemingly endless sub-genres ranging from self portrait, street and documentary to fashion and studio photography. As a result I continue to find it difficult to focus in on practitioners to investigate in depth.
To help me organise my thoughts I have grouped together practitioners who interest me, the groups aren’t exactly arbitrary but they are my own classifications; others would probably group these photographers together quite differently.
This essay looks at two of those groups; contemporary art photographers and British documentarists.
Contemporary Art Photographers
Many of the artist photographers I have looked at in the last two years in contexts other than portraiture are potential sources of inspiration; these would include Cindy Sherman, Gillian Wearing, Francesca Woodman, Richard Billingham, Julian Germain and Nan Goldin and because most photographers in some way invade and influence my mental image bank they will probably influence me in some way as I move forward.
But of these highly acclaimed photographers Julian Germain is the only one who consistently works in areas that interest me. His study of Charles Snelling in For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (1) is an insightful study of a single person and meets, what for me, is the most important criterion for great portraiture by being a series about the subject not the photographer. In his more recent series Classroom Portraits, which is very different than Sixty Seconds, he continues to be the invisible documenter directing the viewers’ full attention to the subject matter.
Although I relate more easily to Germain there are aspects of all the above artists work that appeals immensely. For example Wearing’s Signs …. (i) has particular resonance in the way she prevents the viewer from gaining control of the full meaning of the six hundred portraits that make up the series by allowing her subjects to insert their own text, in effect their own caption, and thereby direct interpretation. This makes it an example of a project that could have been about the photographer but ended up as Russell Ferguson (3) suggests being closer to August Sander’s anthropological studies of society.
Another, quite contrasting example is Nan Goldin whose The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (4) is a brilliant portrait of a commune at a very particular time and in a very particular place but is primarily about Goldin’s relationship with that group; it is an important and exciting book but like Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh (5) it has a style and approach that arguably could only have worked at the time it was created and has such an unbreakable linkage to a very specific, probably unique set of personal circumstances, that it excludes itself as anything other than the most general of inspirations. However, her recent exploration of childhood, Eden and After (6) collectively shows how far we could take the family album into uncharted waters and specifically provides examples of intimate and very human portraits that, because of Goldin’s blunt style, lack fussy artifice.
However, whilst being conscious of over generalising, I often find contemporary portraiture work too self indulgent, too obsessed with exploring the photographer’s psyche or with what I find to be nebulous concepts, perhaps trying too hard to create art and ending up not even creating good photographs which I’m old fashioned enough to believe still lies at the heart of photography.
There is a group of British photographers who are or were more documentarist than portraitist but whose ideas strongly influence me. This group starts with Tony Ray-Jones who tragically died at the age of thirty one in 1972. He was perhaps the first of a new wave of British photographers who imported the ideas of the highly influential Americans such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank (ii) and his contemporaries including Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand whom he had known in New York.
At this stage I am tending to exclude street photography so MACK’s lovely little book Tony Ray-Jones: American Colour (7) should be excluded here were it not for the fact it includes both candid and aware, but always beautifully composed, portraits. However, the book that probably had the greatest influence over the photographers discussed below was A Day Off, published in 1975 and which still ranks amongst the most humorous yet insightful portraits of the English and their strange tribal customs.
Ray-Jones rather inevitably takes me to Martin Parr, who might be Britain’s most famous photographer (iii), and who has built his career on, as David Hurn (8) puts it, by being “probably the first photographer to recognise vulgarity and commercialism as a subject matter.” Parr is much copied, not least by me, his style is deceptively simple: on camera flash and a wide angled lens, but to quote David Hurn again I consistently fail “because the pictures are not about style but are about accurate selective process.” Parr consistently sees the combination of details, of expressions and human interactions that sum up cross sections of society. Because many interpret his summing up, his documentation of societal groups as anything from patronising to mocking he is often criticised but based on watching and reading interviews with the man I don’t see anything negative in his approach. I find his work honest and factual but with same undertones of humour that can be found in Ray-Jones’ work.
The other British documentarists that I find especially inspiring are all, like Parr, Magnum photographers or at least were at one time. I’ve already mentioned David Hurn who has had such a varied career that he could be grouped with fashion photographers, photo journalists or even paparazzi but it is his work as a documentary portrait photographer that interests me most at this point. (I looked at Hurn’s career in some detail here) Hurn is influential at two levels; firstly for what he says, On Being a Photographer (9) his collaboration with Bill Jay is a a wide ranging debate about the very nature of photography, as relevant now as when it was written in 1997; he is not unique in being a practitioner and a teacher but his status as a top professional in the sixties and seventies and as a active practitioner thereafter adds weight to his opinions whilst his career as an educator gives him the ability to communicate those opinions to students of any age.
However it is his work that most directly influences my thinking; I see a relationship between his approach and Josef Koudelka, albeit not as dark, but they appear to share an “eye” for subject matter and presentational style. I think these similarities are best seen in his studies of Ireland and Scotland but also in his reportage of Grosvenor Square and Aberfan (10). His portraits are different in style from his documentary and reportage work, he said that he wanted a sense of informality and didn’t want “to ape the art of painting” (10) and his portraits of artists are gentle, relaxed studies that appear to sum up the public facade of actors like Michael Caine and Peter O’Toole.
Chris Steele-Perkins, the third Magnum photographer, is more of the Hurn and Ray-Jones school than that of Parr but in England My England which brings together forty years of his, often subtle, insights into a society that has evolved from insularity to as, he puts it, “one of the most diverse countries in the world”. If Parr can be interrupted as a commentator on social structures then Steele-Perkins should be seen as a documenter although as a person of mixed race who came to England as a child he is also investigating and “trying to understand” what he is a part of. Like Hurn his documentary work is not without political edge, and like Ray-Jones he is intrigued with sub-cultures, tribalism and social rituals but I find his work a forgiving and affectionate view on Englishness.
The last of the British documentarists that have helped me begin to understand effective portraiture was fleetingly a Magnum photographer. Don McCullin is not first thought of as a portraitist but many of his most famous war photographs are battlefield portraits. His desire to be in the midst of the action, an urge that verged upon the self destructive, placed him alongside the combatants when the mask, the way people wish to be seen, is ripped away to reveal their most sharply defined and raw emotions. Geoff Dyer (11) talks about the strategies pursued by Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus to to see behind the mask, photographing candidly, selecting blind subjects or in Arbus’ case photographing the mentally ill but McCullin, who probably never set out with this objective in mind, discovered the most perfect, disturbing and frightening way to achieve it.
I’m inspired by the bravery, humanity and craftsmanship of his war photography but as Bill Jay (12) points out there is little point in selecting Patagonia as your subject matter if you live in Arizona and for many obvious reasons war photography is not my chosen subject matter. The area of his work that has the most immediate relevance are his studies of Britain. In between and since photographing what Sandro Parmiggiani calls the “heart of darkness” (13) of war and famine his subject matter has ranged from the immigrant poor, homeless and gypsy communities of England to the landscapes of Somerset. Perhaps I should stop making comparisons that might suggest some lack of originality but there is something of Bill Brandt in McCullin’s work. In his introduction to In England (14) he references his admiration for Brandt and comments on similar motivations to explore Englishness.
It is not just the obvious similarity between McCullin’s Coal Searchers, Sunderland 1970 (15) and Brandt’s Coal-Searcher Going Home to Jarrow 1935 (16) (iv) but a more general view of Britain as place of populated by strange people who have sprung from a dark landscape and come together to “celebrate the absorb” (14) in peculiar and obscure social groups. There are other links here, his 1982 series on the Cambridge May Ball is reminiscent of both Brandt and Ray-Jones and perhaps even Parr wold have turned his lens on the privileged student revellers the morning after the ball.
McCullin is a master of his trade, a self declared photographer who doesn’t crave the label of artist “I’ve always thought photography is not so much of an art form but a way of communicating and passing on information,” but his closeup portraits of the homeless who pose, fully aware of his presence and as perfectly composed as a Bailey fashion shoot are more revealing and meaningful than most contemporary art photography. I have written at length (here) about my personal concerns about engaging in what Susie Linfield calls “the fraught enterprise” of photographing society’s marginals but McCullin’s credentials as a concerned photographer give him the license to explore these subjects and his status as one of our greatest photographers gives his work the power to motivate social change. In his introduction to In England he expresses his hope to do just that when talking of the poor immigrants of Bradford in the seventies “What could I bring to these people I photographed? Who benefited from these pictures I was taking? I hoped that I could do some good through the pictures if those in power could see them.” (15)
Notes on Text
(i) Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say 1992 to 1993, a series of 600 photographs (3)
(ii) Robert Frank was born in Switerland in 1924 and didn’t emigrate to America until 1947 but his influence on American photography is too great for him to be classified as anything other than American. If we can claim Bill Brandt as the greatest British photography even though he was a German by bloodline and upbringing we can be generous enough to call Frank an American.
(iii) I don’t know how you judge famousness but Martin Parr is often described as our most famous photographer. In fact I noticed that OCA described him as such only this week. Disappointingly there are not too many other candidates but Lord Snowden and David Bailey are probably names my non photographer friends would recognise ahead of Parr and Don McCullin is reasonably well know. Perhaps Martin Parr is Britain’s most famous photographer amongst photographers.
(iv) The similarities go way beyond the title. In Brandt’s famous picture a single searcher leans exhausted over the handlebars of his bicycle loaded down with a bag of coal as he trudges home.
In McCullin’s picture, taken thirty four years later, two searchers look equally weary as they transport similar bags of coal on, only slightly more modern bicycles.
The images share the same connotations of a burning desire to look after their families against a backdrop of poverty and unemployment in a dark, vast and unforgiving North-Eastern landscape.
(1) Germain, Julian ( 2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (Third Edition 2014) MACK
(2) Germain, Julian (2012) Classroom Portraits London: Prestel
(3) Wearing, Gillian (1999) Gillian Wearing. London: Phaidon
(4) Goldin, Nan (1986) The Ballard of Sexual dependency. 2012 re-Issue edition. New York: Aperture
(5) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions
(6) Goldin, Nan (2014) Eden and After. London: Phaidon.
(7) Ray-Jones, Tony (2013) Tony Ray-Jones: American Colour. MACK
(9) Hurn, David & Jay, Bill (1997) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (Kindle Edition 2010) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing.
(10) Hurn, David (2015) The 1960s Photographed by David Hurn. London: Real Art Press
(11) Dyer, Geoff (2012) The Ongoing Moment (originally published in 2005 by Little and Brown). London: Canongate Books (Kindle Edition)
(12) Jay, Bill (1992) Occam’s Razor. Tucson: Nazraeli Press
(13) McCullin, Don (2012) The Impossible Peace. Milan: Skira Editore
(14) McCullin, Don (2015) Don McCullin. London: Penguin Random House
(15) McCullin, Don (2007) In England. London: Jonathan Cape
(16) Delany, Paul (2004) Bill Brandt. London: Jonathan Cape
(17) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
(8) Harrison, Graham (2010) David Hurn (accessed at Photo Histories 3.12.15) – http://www.photohistories.com/index/58/index-of-articles
(16) Brown, Mark (2015) Digital images can’t be trusted, says war photographer Don McCullin (accessed at The Guardioan 6.2.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/27/don-mccullin-war-photographer-digital-images