Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chapter 7: Portraits by Thomas Struth, Rineke Dijkstra, Patrick Faigenbaum, Luc Delahaye, and Roland Fischer; Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's film Zidane

Thomas Struth

Fried begins chapter 7 with a discussion of Thomas Struth's portraits of families.

Made with a large-format camera, the photographs show families of a "high level of cultivation," evidenced by the state of their homes and their belongings.  Struth made the photographs with a large-format camera, deciding on the frame and then asking the families to arrange themselves as they would like.  Fried introduces one of the themes for this chapter by discussion of Struth's photographs: the ethics of putting another person before a camera and ultimately representing them to the future beholder, who will most likely never meet them in person.

Struth states, "the portrait is the subject matter in photography where the problems of the media are the most visible."  (Fried, 192)  Curator Ann Goldstein wrote in an essay in Struth's retrospective exhibition catalogue, "for him, those problems begin with the reality of putting a person in front of a camera, and the complex dynamics that take place between the sitter, the photographer, and the spectator."  (Fried, 192)

Writing about the viewer's process of viewing Struth's family portraits, Fried writes "we are brought into contact with people we almost certainly will never meet, and are allowed to ponder a group of individuals whose relationships are essentially unguarded, open to our examination."  (Fried, 198) 

Writing about the conventions of portraiture, Fried writes "those of the portrait call for exhibiting a subject, the sitter, to the public gaze; put another way, the basic action depicted in a portrait is the sitter's presentation of himself or herself to be beheld."  (Fried, 192)

The Hirose Family, Hiroshima, 1987

It is interesting that he starts with Struth to speak of these complex dynamics, as his family portraits are very direct and formal and in my opinion, do not illicit any of the controversy around ethics and complicated relationships that portraits by Rineke Dijkstra or Diane Arbus do (more on them later).

Fried writes about the different approaches photographers take to making portraits.  Struth, he claims, either photographed families he already knew or established lasting relationships with them.  He makes a distinction between Struth and Arbus, claiming that Struth's relationships were more lasting, while Arbus merely befriended people and gained their trust long enough to make their portrait.

The Smith Family, Fife, 1989
The Bernstein Family, Mundersbach, 1990
The Consolandi Family, Milan, 1996
Eleanor and Giles Robertson, Edinburgh, 1987

Fried claims that Struth's pictures employ two complementary axes, the first being lateral and the second being orthogonal to the first and thrusting out of the picture frame toward the viewer.

"The first lies wholly within the picture and is essentially lateral; I think of it as the axis of family relationships, which in the case of Struth's family portraits includes both the play of physical resemblance and difference... the second axis is orthogonal to the first and thrusts directly out from the picture toward the viewer; this is the axis of a frontal gaze or, in the family portraits, a concert of frontal gazes, and I think of it as the axis of individual and/or collective address."  (Fried, 203)

He also states that the family portrait images have a quasi-narrative approach, as the viewer's attention shuttles between individual members of the family and the family unit as a whole.

The viewers are addressing the camera directly and are therefore aware that they will ultimately be on display to a future beholder.  Fried claims that their awareness of this fact is essential to the success of Struth's work, which is interesting because he later describes work by Diane Arbus from an entirely opposite point of view.  Fried questions the viewpoint of Charles Wylie, chief organizer of Struth's 2002 retrospective exhibition, which is that "perhaps we are meant to take [the sitters'] awareness with us," and, Fried writes, "apply it to our own lives."  (Fried, 202)  He claims that "there is something about photography that encourages this sort of well-meant moralism."  (Fried, 202)

Struth's family portraits contain a juxtaposition of awareness, as the subjects are supposedly unaware of the complex dynamics of their family relationships being presented to the camera, while they are very aware of the fact that they are being photographed.  This juxtaposition will come up again in discussion of Dijkstra's work.  

Fried also claims that the success of Struth's portraits come from the fact that the subjects are so absorbed in posing, in fulfilling their expected family roles, that they are individually vividly present for the portrait.  Presentness of his subjects is a quality sought out by Struth. 

The Richter Family, Cologne, 2002

Fried writes that the sitters in the Richter family could not possibly be more present, first individually, then as pairs (father/daughter, mother/son), and then finally as a family, which he compares to a music chord.  He claims that the photograph centers upon the stance of the young boy, which he calls "courageous" and similar to a "small gunfighter...  at the ready."   He also says the photograph is in color, but its feeling is of black-and-white, which I thought was strange.  Below is another version of this photograph, also made in 2002:

The Richter Family, Cologne, 2002
Fried ends his discussion of Struth's portraits by writing about The Martin-Mason Family.  I found his reading of this photograph to be problematic for a number of reasons.  He claims that when he stood in front of it, he could not read or understand the photograph; he could not make it "work" for him.  He claimed that the photograph refused the sort of emotional access that he had perceived in the other family portraits.  When he explained this difficulty of access to Struth, he was told that the photograph was indeed harder to read because the family was mixed, joined by marriage and not biologically, and that therefore the lateral relationships are more complex.

The Martin-Mason Family

Fried claims, "the lateral family relationships in the Martin-Mason picture are more complex and divided than those in the other photographs I have considered, so much so that no uninformed viewer could be expected to work them out; in particular, it seems to me, the relations of biological resemblance are inscrutable."  (Fried, 206)

This is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, Fried is assuming he can accurately read into the complexities of family dynamics through a single, staged photograph, which of course is not possible.  He is also implying that the family dynamics in the biologically related families are less complex than the dynamics in the "mixed" family, which is not so much a photographic problem, but is reductive and offensive on a human level.

Going back slightly to the beginning of the chapter, Fried also discussed issues of representations in the work of Walker Evans and August Sander.   In Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he "favored the close-range frontal encounter precisely because of what he and James Agee, who wrote the text, considered its basic honesty.  However, Agee expresses no end of anguish about the possible exploitation of their subjects that this involved, and he also writes that Evans took certain photograohs surreptitiously, while the family in question thought he was preparing to take only their portrait."  (Fried, 195)

Interestingly, though, Evans used a similar photographic strategy to Struth, though of course the socioeconomic class of the subjects was quite different.  Still, he set up a large-format camera and invited his subjects to present themselves to it, directly and formally. 

Fried also mentions that August Sander, a twentieth-century portrait photographer who regular portrayed his sitters "face-on," was a direct influence on Struth.

Rineke Dijkstra and Diane Arbus

Fried moves on from Struth's families to discuss Rikeke Dijkstra's work, which he contrasts with the work of Diane Arbus.   In regard to Dijkstra's beach portraits, Fried claims they are successful partly because of the amount of time it takes for the 4 x 5 portrait to be made.  Dijkstra claims of her sitters that "if they are not concentrating, I cannot photograph them."  (Fried, 206)

Fried's thesis about these portraits is that Dijkstra uses a frontal pose and the subjects awareness of the camera to draw attention to "aspects of their behavior that escape conscious control."  (Fried, 207)

Dijkstra says, "it's like what Diane Arbus said, you are looking for the 'gap between intention and effect.' People think that they present themselves one way, but they cannot help but show something else as well.  It's impossible to have everything under control."

Fried writes of all of the ethical concerns regarding the work of Arbus (which I won't repeat here as everyone is aware of them) and he seems to have a less-than-favorable stance on her work.  I question many of the assumptions he makes about her portraits, but perhaps that debate is not completely relevant to this discussion.  He does, however, state that Arbus was the most decisive influence on Dijkstra and her work.  Fried writes that while Dijkstra and Arbus have a similar approach, their choice of subject matter affects how their work is read.  He states that Arbus seeks out "bizarre characters or strange-looking children or 'freaks' of any stamp," while Dijkstra photographs "young and appealing beachgoers."  Again, I find this description of their work problematic.  As a disclaimer, I should say that I found Arbus's work incredibly moving and validating when I first encountered it, as evidenced by getting her quote about freaks tattooed onto my arm.

However, personal anecdotes aside, I also do not think that the phrase "young and appealing" is an accurate description of Dijkstra's subjects.  Her subjects in the beach portraits strike me as both elegantly beautiful and painfully awkward, and all around raw in their energy.  In many ways, she is seeking out a certain kind of beautiful awkwardness, as in the case of the beach portraits, or a revelatory and transformative moment, as in the mothers who have just given birth or the soldiers who have just fired a gun for the first time.  She claims to be seeking out moments when her subjects are undergoing their own psychological or emotional experiences in pursuit of getting an authentic, un-self conscious portrait.  Her interest doesn't seem to be that distant from the interest of Arbus, actually, though their photographs are executed quite differently. 

Fried writes that it is "the intense dynamic of authorial intrusiveness and potentially devastating self-revelation that has led viewers to find Arbus's work at once gripping and problematic," and "what interests Dijkstra is not what is revealed psychologically about her subjects but rather the gap itself, the way in which her subjects' awareness of being photographed not only coexists but positively foregrounds, makes visible to the camera, hence to the viewer, a range of features that are not 'under control'."  (Fried, 211-212)  Here, he is trying to contrast the two artists, though the above interpretation of Dijkstra could apply to Arbus as well.

Human Interiority, consciousness, and self-representation

Fried examines a series of portraits of busts made by Patrick Faigenbaum, which he believed were infused with a not of human interiority through the artist's use of framing, cropping, lighting, and printing.

Fried writes:

"the seeming animation of the merely material, an animation that on the one hand is utterly dependent on the original sculptures, but that on the other- by virtue of the transformative power of photography that I have more than once remarked on in this book- goes far beyond the originals in the direction of a subjectivity effect of truly uncanny force...  Not surprisingly, I want to suggest that Faigenbaum's Roman emperors thus anticipate his later turning to an absorptive esthetic, and more broadly that their inspired conjoining of materiality, hence unconsciousness, and expressiveness is implicitly antitheatrical."  (Fried, 218)

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jane Seymour, 1999

In contrast, he writes that Sugimoto's photographs of wax figures are, "ingeniously thematizing the effigies' absence of subjectivity, despite their ostensible lifelikeness, to which the finely detailed photographs do full justice and more- the 'more' of course being the means by which that lifelifeness is in the end undone."  (Fried, 220)

Many artists have photographed other works of art.  The above two examples made me think of Nan Goldin's recent exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery.  I wonder what Fried thinks about how Nan's representations of sculptures and paintings function alongside her visceral photographs.

Fried also cites Luc Delahaye's "L'Autre," a book of ninety candid shots of fellow passengers taken with a hidden camera on the Paris Metro between 1995 and 1997 and also references Walker Evan's "Subway Portraits" of 1938-1941.

According to curator Mia Fineman, "for Evans, the enforced proximity and the mesmerizing tedium of the subway offered a 'dream location for any portrait photographer weary of the studio and of the horrors of vanity... the guard is down and the mask is off: even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway."  (Fried, 221)

The subway (and specifically the act of photographing surreptitiously in it) provided the ideal situation in which one could photograph people who were lost in their own thoughts and seeking to distance themselves from their present situation, providing "so many masks of blankness."  Delahaye himself adopted a mask of blankness when making these photographs, fitting in perfectly into the environment around him.

These images call to mind A Kind of Rapture by Robert Bergman (about which there is an interesting article here).  Though his subjects were aware they were being photographed, he captured a kind of transcendental moment in many of his images that is deeply compelling.

One of the last bodies of work Fried discusses is Roland Fischer's Nuns and Monks, in which Fischer photographed monks and other religious persons in Benedictine monasteries all across Europe.  Fried suggests that his work had for it's aim "the very image of authenticity, not simply of the individuals photographed, but by means of them of a life entirely consecrated to a faith."  (Fried, 224)  Though the subject matter is clearly radically different, this idea of being able to capture truth returns us to Fried's assertion that he can discern complex family dynamics from one single photograph.  Is it possible to capture a lifetime's worth of faith on the face of a nun or monk in a photograph?

At the end of the chapter, Fried discusses Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's 2006 film Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait, made during the entirety of a ninety-minute soccer match.

"Seventeen synchronized movie cameras, using different types of of film and in various positions around the stadium, were trained on one player, the superb and legendary Real halfback Zinedine Zidane."  (Fried, 226)

Fried writes, "Zidane himself is depicted as wholly absorbed throughout almost the entire film.  What absorbs him, naturally, is the match."  (Fried, 228)  This comment made me question if it is still absorption as it relates to art, and in the context that it has been discussed thus far in the book.  If Zidane is actually just playing a game of soccer, does the term "absorption" carry the same implication as Jeff Wall's Adrian Walker, for example?  Is the key distinction that one is actually absorbed and the other is pretending to be absorbed?

Fried points out that while Zidane is absorbed completely in the match, he is also very much aware of being beheld, both by the immediate audience of eighty thousand spectators and the millions of fans watching on TV and also by the seventeen movie cameras that he knows are focused on him.  In this regard, he knows he is being watched, but "we also feel that he has no way of knowing that we in particular are looking on."  (Fried, 229)

Fried argues that "this is the realm of 'to-be-seenness' with a vengeance.  Yet the viewer's conviction of the great athlete's total engagement in the match is not thereby undermined.  Instead, the film lays bare a hitherto unthematized relationship between absorption and beholding."  (Fried, 230)

The filmmakers make a point of showing Zidane's awareness of the crowd, thereby shifting his focus from intense personal concentration to an awareness of being beheld.  This shifting back and forth in consciousness also references the non-linear nature of experience and memory.

Fried closes by saying, "whatever else Zidane may be, it is a compelling portrayal of that condition ("you are never alone"), which in this instance comes across as a state of mindedness that is almost unremittingly intense and at the same time seems somehow bare or minimal, as if lacking in depth."  (Fried, 231)

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