Friday, February 28, 2014

What is a Portrait?

Portrait of boy and his dog
This isn’t something that I would have thought to be particularly controversial. You take a picture of somebody and bam you have a portrait, right? I mean, clearly there is going to be variation in the quality, Richard Avedon’s Dovima with the Elephants is a little better than the selfie I took of my new hairdo looking down into the partly thumb- obscured lens of my disposable camera. 

It wasn’t until I was looking at Flickr groups with titles such as ‘portraiture’ or ‘people’s portraits’ or ‘artistic portraiture’ that I realized there did actually seem to be a wide variety of interpretations of what constituted a portrait. Yes, this question began not by wrestling with the idea of the Greek blank eyed marble discus throwers as portraits or types, but from the everyday world of Flickr. 

Portrait of my son
Clearly, some of this confusion stems from people simply not caring that their picture out of the window of the airplane capturing parts of the wing and a bit of cloud didn’t constitute a portrait. I have to say I can also firmly state that poorly drawn pictures of oral sex also don’t make the cut, I’m not sure when that became unclear. 
Portrait of a Monkey

Then there are some gray areas. Can pictures of animals be portraits? What about of a building or a plant? Is it possible to paint a portrait of an inanimate object? What is it about a picture of an individual monarch butterfly that makes it less of a portrait than a picture of an individual person? Sure, to me all of the monarchs look the same, but I bet they would say the same of people. 

So, whenever I run out of knowledge, I turn to the gods of google. I started my quest with the usual evocative form of address, designed to flatter such deities: 

“Oh gods of google, what is a...”
I was immediately interrupted by the eager demons of autofill: 
Angel Santos, World Famous Ceramacist
“what is a thot?”
“what is a good sat score?” “what is a bitcoin?”

“what is a good credit score?” 
 No, wait, that’s not what I need. Hold on...what is a thot? Okay, I’ve looked that up and I’m not going to share it here. Nevermind. It’s enough to know that the plural form is thotties. I’m glad that’s been thought through. 

I pushed boldly forward with my query: 
“What is a portrait?” 
As always, the first gods to respond were Wikepedia, god of common knowledge and esoteric information, and Youtube, god of whatever people thought of last now that everybody has a video camera all of the time and apparently very little common sense or understanding of what other people might find interesting. I pushed past them to a source that seemed more respectable, The National Galleries of Scotland

Portrait of Armando Arriega
The answer comes in a charming short video with responses from the curators to that very question. What is immediately clear is that, like all things that we are accustomed to, any thoughtful answer is much less definite than we would think. In fact, it seems to me that the very familiarity with the word prevents us from every actually understanding what it means. One of the first responses is that it is an evocation of a person. Another curator states that in a portrait, there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of an individual (possibly why a picture of a monarch butterfly, no matter how beautiful, is not a portrait because we just don’t know how to evaluate monarchian uniqueness). 
Portrait of the Churro-maker's daughter

Then, the waters get muddy again with Keith Hartley’s disclosure that a portrait doesn’t always have to be of a person, but that it can be of a thing as well. In fact, by the end the curators really seem to be falling apart...and remember the are world class experts at the National Portrait Gallery. What is so wonderfully charming about this video though is the very frank confusion and recognition of the humor of that state by the curators. 

Portrait of a Dancer
Nicola Kalinsky begins to address the question of who makes the portrait as an element of determining what a portrait is. Also, she invokes the existence of a memory in connection with the image as an essential characteristic. 

If a portrait is individuality, connection, and memory in a visual form. Where does that leave our photograph of a monarch? Probably without portrait status after all, no matter how beautiful the butterfly, any memory held by a butterfly would not be recognizable as such by a person and vice versa. When thinking of a family dog, or any of the higher order of mammals (do not distract me by asking me what that means...I can’t answer everything...) there is clearly a connection and a memory and individuality on a different level. 

Of course, the best definition is saved for last and comes from Gerd Sander, photographer and grandson of the photographer August Sander
Portrait of Don Jose Lopez
“It’s like being in love you know, it’s the same never know how it happens but if it happens right a good outcome will be there.”
Maybe a good portrait is one that makes me fall in love with the sitter, whether with their eyes, their smile, their power, or their dream. Rather than dispute with anyone over their personal experience of that love, let the definition be expansive rather than exclusive. After all, we’re always better off with more love than less.