What are the things that one can possibly read into a
photograph of a face? Hurt. Anger. Resentment. Peace. Apprehension. There
really is no limit. If you are anything like me, you can spend unusually long
periods of time staring at your photographs, earnestly searching for, – and
often finding – things that escaped you in the heat of the moment during the
shoot. The model, sporting into a toothily heartwarming smile – she was unusually
happy that day. My assistant, looking worn out, pensive and uneasy: I must have
said something that left her agitated.
The camera picks up on such things though – or so we think.
Its ability to be objective and capture everything in front of it without being
partial to one or more subjects in its field of view; and high shutter speeds
that capture moments the human eye would ordinarily not notice allow it to pick
up on underlying streams of emotion, revealing frustrations, surprise, affection,
irritation – the whole spectrum of unfiltered emotion. However, doubts inevitably
set in. Memories from the shoot seem fuzzy and misleading. The model, I now
remember (another snapshot, taken seconds later, reminds me), was unhappy that
day. My assistant was the life of the shoot, handling everything from the music
to making sure the model felt better.
I am deeply fascinated by portraiture. I think a
successful portrait has a powerful emotional or physical aura. It has personality.
Nevertheless, I find that, exceptional photographic portraits, are hardly involved with the business
of mind-reading, and only occasionally do they concern themselves in the nuances
of personality. At their best, they are like quiet streams, leading to deeper
waters. Isobel Crombie, a curator, in describing the work of Bill Henson, once
wrote of “the unending suggestiveness of the face in relation to its own inner
drama”. And in truth, this unending, suggestiveness might as easily be triggered
by the image of a person with their eyes closed as by one whose eyes are
This idea is what informed my thesis project, titled
‘windows’ – from the popular saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
I was less concerned about ‘capturing the personality of the subject’ and more
interested in the interpretations of the work by its viewers. I was driven by
the curiosity of finding out what range of emotions were communicated to
different viewers by the work. Many of the photographs in ‘Windows’ remind
me that one can be intimately present and very far away at the same time.
Photography, with its haunting combination of a tangible presence marking
temporal loss, is in many ways the ideal medium for showing this.
With this project, I felt like there was some distraction
from the aim of the work. And with time I realized that the distinctive facial
features of the human face in the portraits took away from how I wanted the
work to feel. Seeing the entire face at once consequently reveals the identity
of the subjects to the viewer, and I came to find that this left no room for
ambiguity. More often than not, most viewers of the work – on a subconscious
level – paid more attention to the facial features of the subject and how the
person looked and less emphasis on the emotion they could feel, or see in the
photograph they were looking at.
Introducing some form of ambiguity to the photographs fixed
that and completely changed the feel and direction of the project for the
better. I found that minimizing the visibility of most of the facial features
of the subjects made them less easily identifiable. However, this introduced
the quality of having a strong presence while being distant at the same time
and, ultimately, the ability to evoke emotion in the subject and in the viewer.
This was achieved through an experimental development process
inspired by Timothy Pakron, a photographer and painter whom I discovered at the
start of my last semester at school. By using the familiarity of the face as the
template, the process involved hand painting the developer in the darkroom,
intentionally revealing specific, desired features of the face on the print.
Doing this creates a blank negative space that gives the portrait a floating characteristic.
Rather than creating a traditional, straight from film portrait, I was more concerned
with investigating how the original image can be brought to the surface in different
ways. The portraits embody their own strangeness. I enable the viewer to
process impressions of a face, and the emotion that is read from it. My job as
an artist is to challenge the viewers pre-existing ideas. Make them see
differently, think differently, and most importantly, feel differently.
exploration, the defining goal of this project is to create a portrait that
becomes an experience to view and hopefully have the capacity to pierce our
hearts through emotion.