Notes on Portraits (Elegy to August Sander)
January 07, 2005
This series is composed of pictures that adopt the traditional modes of pictorial celebrity portrait genre, from Dürer or Rembrandt to Nadar. The pictures show well- and lesser-known public characters of present time, from both fictional films and social and political life: Pope John Paul II, Spanish king Juan Carlos I, President Bush, General Franco, NBA athlete Allen Iverson; actors Samuel L. Jackson (as Shaft), Arnold Swarzenegger (as Terminator), Seth Green, and Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein); musicians Jimi Hendrix, members of Kiss and Metallica; and fictional characters Darth Vader, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and so on. Based upon historical portrait models from Renaissance and Baroque painting and early photography, the life-size black and white portraits are dark, pensive and brooding, (and also according to the genre, they depict kings and monsters).
These pictures were made in the studio using action figures; however, at first sight they don’t look artificial. The use of focus and shadow push the limits of the pictures' readability. The ambiguity of their reading questions the perception process and the social construction of meaning in images. They continue an interrogation of the epistemological ambiguity of photography between the representation of historical reality and the construction of a perceptual fiction that I’ve explored in previous works. For example, in The White Dahlia. Barcelona Photographs (1999-2001) I reconstructed and photographed miniature recognizable sites from Barcelona’s historical center, the Barrio Chino, the former red-light district where I live (which is today in a radical urban transformation). This was an attempt to visually narrate the forgotten histories that disappear when the city changes. I took the title of the series from James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, a reference to the noir tradition of representing the losers of history, who are never otherwise represented. In that series, narrative construction was not opposed to but rather inspired by the documentary approach of using photography as historical testimony. The attention to abjection (street debris, the prostitution and crime-ridden neighborhoods) in this series was linked to documentary tradition. I understand documentary as a historical genre for the representation of the other, the poor, the exotic, and thus as the representation of the subaltern, of the forgotten, of the histories that never get written—those that are unrepresented in celebrity portraits.
In the new celebrity portrait series this analysis of image-recognition adopts a twofold meaning, according to the double meaning of the term recognition itself. On the one hand, it refers to the image-reading process itself, to perception (I see this, I understand who this picture represents) and, on the other hand, to the construction of public identities, to social recognition (I see who this person is because I know it is a celebrity). Thus the ambiguity of perception appears to be conditioned socially and historically. The celebrity portrait genre is historically constructed on the affirmation of individuality as a fundamental social category in liberal bourgeois societies. Celebrity portrait is a dialectic genre which serves to gratify both liberal identity and the social construction of the individual as a public entity. The genre is the result of the social need of individuals as well as of the individual aspiration for social recognition. The narcissistic source of celebrity portraiture is both a subjective drive and a social imperative. (I’m not referring here to the implications of photographic portraiture in the construction of social identities and their consequences in terms of social organization and control in modern culture, which is obviously a crucial aspect of the history of photographic portraiture).
But then what happens when we realize that these portraits are not of real persons but of small-scale figurines? Where is the subjective desire left? In spite of the fact that these portraits are not such (or they are in a paradoxical way: they belong to the genre although don’t identify individuals but rather objects), the faces in the pictures are human, they show traces of complex subjectivities. They are not real, there is not any thinking subject there, there is no inner truth; they have the radical opacity of objects but strangely they are very human, very real. They are inert but alive (they are, literally and crudely, bodies without organs). The portraits are human not because of their singularity but because of their fidelity to the (historical) rules of the genre.
This fact is a reference to the way subjectivity is socially and historically determined, to how we understand the body as a construction itself and to the dialectic of the body and technology. Subjectivity is multiple and can adopt multiple bodily forms. This picture-making method is a form of body building, in that the photographic activity itself is a form of interaction of the body with a specific technology. The photographer and the camera become a unity, which we know from Vertov and earlier. The body is a machine. Who rules? Who works for whom?
The use of action figures refers again to the abject. They turn the sublime into the ridiculous. We have here the use of monsters and popular culture icons. And of noir icons too (also the images are pretty dark). Abjection arises from the rather ridiculous and un-sublime fact of the photographer in his studio using sophisticated artistic methods to photograph some stupid toys. Abjection is linked to the naive, manual, amateurish, pre-modern and anti-avant-garde method implied in the production of this work, which mimics the illusionistic popular spectacles from the bastard origin of photography and cinema that survive today in film special effects and involves fetishistic and voyeuristic drives. But aren’t those drives inherent to artistic image-making? Is it possible to simultaneously reproduce and criticize the artistic methods that one adopts? Is the ridiculous sublime not only a postmodern condition? Isn’t that ridiculous sublime pre-modern painting at the Metropolitan Museum, Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean Léon Gérôme (1890) an example of a critique of representation avant la lettre?
Repetition of history is a farce. And historical reality seems a farce in this series. But it is not a matter of celebration or regret about the capacity of our digital age to produce the real without the real. The fidelity of these portraits to the conditions of the genre and to traditional still photography (no Photoshop here) points to a understanding of image-making in historical terms. What Photoshop has turned into commonplace—the notion of photography as something totally artificial and of photorealism as an effect—was already contained in photography since its beginning. And photography inherited it from painting.
This series comes from the admiration of and nostalgia for August Sander’s book Antlitz der Zeit (Face of our Time), published in 1929. As in Sander’s work, these pictures are an attempt to shape the present time by means of a series of faces.