Artists by Artists | Portrait Photography


As a portrait photographer, and I can only
speak about how I work, what I try to do is find something that neither the sitter, nor
I, really know is going to come. So, it’s not a battle, it’s not a quest, it’s not
a manipulative, you know, force that’s trying to pull something out. But what you’re trying
to do is just slow things down for that little moment, then you go [makes a sound to indicate
that he’s taking a photo] that’s it. In order to have a successful portrait, there
really has to be this sort of transaction, if you will. I guess a way to describe it
is there’s a kind of complicitness between the sitter and the photographer. Generally when’s someone saying to me, “how
do you do a good portrait?” I say, “find someone interesting,” you know because generally
people with an interesting life have an interest in life, so a lot of artists like that. Lee Miller was an American photographer who
actually started out on the other side of the camera. She was a model. She worked with
Man Ray in Paris and assisted him in his printing, and was also his lover and his muse, and was
the inspiration for many of his portraits. Her background of being a model and understanding
how to, sort of, perform for the camera, and how to present one’s best image, if you
will, very much informed her own portrait making then. Her portraits, while they’re of, sort of,
renowned artists and document people that were involved in the surrealist movement at
the time, they were also her friends, and it was her social group; but then you have
her more formal portraits, for example the portrait of Joseph Cornell. His art was one
of 3D, it wasn’t necessary 2D, and so to have him represented in this way makes perfect
sense in, sort of, conveying his personality, who he is. Warhol really is the key artist in understanding
the importance of photography for art and the paintings that he produced from them,
early 1960s onwards, are actually based on photographs in which he really did very little
to alter the image. He would impose colour on top of it but the photographic image stayed
as it was. This was the very, sort of, heart of the way he saw modern society was working. A lot of the people he took photographs of
in the ‘70s and ‘80s were people he knew, particularly in the New York art world. Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer
who really came to providence in the 1970s and 1980s. He gained quite a bit of notoriety
for some of his images in depicting, sort of, homoerotic portraits. With all of Mapplethorpe’s portraits there
was a, sort of, deep-rooted respect for the sitter, and none more so when the sitter happened
to be an artist. People like Andy Warhol he very much admired for their ability to, sort
of, position themselves and their artwork within this larger sphere, if you will. Mapplethorpe had a very high regard for Andy
Warhol’s work and, in fact, they showed together in 1983, but by this time Mapplethorpe
was starting to make a name for himself and Warhol was slightly … I wouldn’t say uneasy,
but he was, sort of, very wary of this young upstart. Robert Mapplethorpe was fascinated by that
whole period in time. You know, Manhattan was happening, there was Max’s, there was all, you know, these
energies and Warhol would have the back room and it would be all the, those and suches;
those, and the avant-garde art world, and Mapplethorpe wanted to break in … they all
wanted to break in to that. And I love that idea of that photograph, with Warhol’s head
just floating, because it grew to the point someone who was really keen to join that circle,
I think seen through that circle, or saw that circle for what it was, and I like the idea,
or I get the feeling that he just wanted to cut that off from him. One thing that can certainly contribute to
a successful portrait is, of course, the planning for it. If you think of, perhaps say, the
portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, there’s been great attention paid to the lighting,
to the positioning of the sitter. This is very much a, sort of, performance, where he,
sort of, has an idea in his mind, you know, how he wants to, sort of, construct the image
and how he’s going to shoot the scene. We’re not really getting an insight into
their personal lives, we’re not really seeing them, you know, caught in a spontaneous informal
setting; it’s very much a deliberate, kind of, marketing of their image. If you compare
that to the Lee Miller of Pablo Picasso, she’s sort of almost caught him unawares, there’s
a very informal quality to it, but he’s staring directly at the camera. I like to
think that that was him, sort of, looking at Lee and, sort of, sizing her up, already
thinking in his mind that he was going to paint her. In a way it’s hard to describe what makes
a successful portrait because there’s so many different elements and factors that,
sort of, come into it, but I think if you, sort of, strip it down, it really does come
back to this, sort of, chemistry between the photographer and the sitter. I think that’s
where you get the successful image.

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