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PofI_cover

The People of India

Edited by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye
Published by W.H. Allen and Co. between 1868 and 1875
468 Albumen prints in 8 volumes 13” x 9.5”
Long out of print.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 
 
 

 

What we have is both an example of the interplay between photographs and text, and a fascinating insight into the mind of the British Raj. The photographs are, for the most part, conventional studio-type portraits of individuals, though there are some fine group studies. It is the texts that are the most revealing: a mixture of gossip, ethnography and military intelligence report, with little attempt at distance or objectivity.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger – The Photobook: A History volume I

 

PofI_002

From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the British found themselves in direct control over much of the Indian subcontinent. Vastly outnumbered by their subjects and facing a bewildering array of religions, languages, customs, tribes, and castes, the British Raj sought to define (and hence regulate and control) the inhabitants of its Indian territories. If, as Foucault suggests, knowledge is both an effect and instrument of power,1 then the project of understanding the myriad facets present in India culture was also a project of recutting that particular gem in the imperial crown in order to let the light of justification and reason shine on the British Raj.

The “definition” of the Indian peoples took place before there was much in the way of either theory or practice of anthropological study. The project of identification and description filled hundreds of volumes. It was made manifest in the census (and accompanying reports) that began in the early 1870s. It formed a substantial part of a series of gazetteers (generally, one volume for each district) and the administrative manuals to various areas. As British officials with an interest in ethnography began to collect and compile accounts, the project of classifying India’s people took the form of a series of “Castes and Tribes” books for different regions. These were heafty multi-volume works. In terms of such publications, the project could be said to start with Edward Balfour’s 1858 Cyclopaedia of India and close with the 1928 four-volume set Mysore Tribes and Castes.

Within the imperial purview, the need for accurate ethnographic information was made acute by the 1857 rebellion. There was a sense among administrators that lack of cultural knowledge could be fatal.2

The project of understanding the Indian cultural landscape was in no way a small one. It was, in fact, the type of project that could only be undertaken with the resources and urgencies of an empire behind it. In the end it would reveal as much about its authors as it did about its subjects. At its worst the classification system sought to announce a theory of racial types. Certain groups were categorized as criminal tribes or castes. Individuals in these groups were thought to be so addicted to crime that it was a defining characteristic of the group (as opposed to crime being a reaction by individuals to economic or social circumstance). Children who belonged to these groups would necessarily display criminal tendencies when they came of age. As part of the classification project, the Criminal Tribes Act was implemented in 1871. Members of a group so classified lost basic human rights and were required to register and report to police on a regular basis.3

At its best, the project was a formative compendium of ethnographic detail completed by sympathetic and intelligent observers who sought to understand the cultures they were living among. While it was true that it was formative anthropology with a heavy bias, it still managed to preserve a wealth of invaluable detail.

Into this massive endeavour, the photograph brought a new documentary authority. The Peoples of India brought into play a number of diverse (and sometimes contradictory) influences and desires. The book itself is the result of multiple authors and photographers. The photographs “were produced without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances, by different officers; and copies of each plate were sent home to the Secretary of State for India in Council.”4 On the most superficial level, the eight-volume set was the result of a desire by Lord Canning (Governor-General of India 1855 – 1862) and his wife to have a photographic souvenir of native Indian people.5 After the events of 1857 the project became an official government study. As official publication it sought to communicate the ideology of the British Raj:

This increasing systematization of caste was intimately connected with the development of photography. As much of the effort of ethnological classification was directed by a search for ‘scientific’ precision, the recording of ‘exact’ images by photography logically complemented the compiling of statistical information. Insofar as a photograph of a ‘typical’ member of an ethnic group could be used to identify the precise characteristics, of physiognomy, dress, and manners, that defined the group as a whole.6

Even given the cumbersome nature of early photography equipment it was lightweight compared to other methods of ethnographic recording. The Schlagintweit brothers, commissioned by the East India Company in 1853 to explore and survey the Himalayas, made a large collection of plaster casts of Indian heads.7

If the transport of life-size plaster casts was difficult, it was probably nothing compared to bringing back the actual people. This was a colonial prerogative from the time of Columbus, but toward the end of the eighteenth century it was done in the name of anthropological science. Franz Boas himself helped to orchestrate the Anthropological Hall at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 where fourteen Kwakiutl were displayed.8

The Peoples of India occupying as it did an uneasy position somewhere between exhibition curiosity and colonial administrative manual was, apparently, largely ignored by the public.9 Many of the photographs are dispassionate, a cross between police line-up and family portrait. They are, of course, remarkable for what they depict and the time they were taken. Many of the group poses are unusual – showing individuals sleeping while leaning up against each other. It is impossible to tell if this was a natural state or a romantic notion on the part of the photographer. There are some excellent portraits in the collection, however, on the whole the photography lacks the impact of a unified vision or an emotional attachment to the subjects. Despite its failings, a photographic project of the range and scope of The People of India would not be undertaken again. The apparatus of the State would switch to photographing individual criminals, and the public’s interest in diverse cultures would be satisfied by professional photographers and travel writers.

The photographs collected were destined for the London International Exhibition of 1862 but, according to John Falconer in his essay “A Passion for Documentation” through lack of time and organization, most of the material arrived too late for inclusion in the exhibition.”

From Volume I, Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar

From Volume I, “Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar”

1. I owe this concise statement of Foucault to Nicholas B. Dirks who stated it in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of Modern India, published in 2001 by Princeton University Press.

2. From the British perspective the Indian “Mutiny” was largely explained by a failure of cultural knowledge:
“The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. These rifles, which fired Minié balls, had a tighter fit than the earlier muskets, and used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef; which would be offensive to Hindus, or lard derived from pork; which would be offensive to Muslims.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Rebellion_of_1857

3. Criminal Tribes Act. 1871

4. Preface to  The People of India, the full title of which is The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations with Descriptive Letterpress of The Races And Tribes Of Hindustan, Originally Prepared Under The Authority of The Government of India and Reproduced by Order of The Secretary of State for India In Council.

5. Charles Canning was not disinterested in culture having served on the Royal Commission on the British Museum (1847–49).

6. Thomas R. Metcalf 1997 The New Cambridge History of India. Volume 3, Part 4, Ideologies of the Raj, pg 119.

7. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 79.

8. “The Visual in Anthropology” David MacDougall in Rethinking Visual Anthropology ed. Marus Banks, Howard Morphy 1997 Yale University Press p 276.

9. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 82

 

 

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Photography is a marvelous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, an art that has excited the most astute minds—and one that can be practiced by any imbecile … Photographic theory can be taught in an hour, the basic technique in a day. But what cannot be taught is a feeling for light … It is how light lies on the face that you as artist must capture. Nor can one be taught how to grasp the personality of the sitter. To produce an intimate likeness rather than a banal portrait, the result of mere chance, you must put yourself at once in communication with the sitter, size up his thoughts and his very character.

Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)

Quoted in the biography Nadar by Jean Prinet and Antoinette Dilasser

 

Pierre Gonnord

 

Pierre Gonnord
PHotoBolsillo
5.25 x 7, 112 pages, softcover
La Fabrica, 2012
$20.00

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

I have this funny thing which is that I’m never afraid when I’m looking in the ground glass. This person could be approaching with a gun or something like that and I’d have my eyes glued to the finder and it wasn’t like I was really vulnerable.

Diane Arbus

If Rembrandt were a photographer instead of a painter, and if he were drawn to the margins of society rather than to himself (and his other subjects) he might have produced works very much like those of Pierre Gonnord.

With their dark backgrounds and characteristic lighting, these images are sculpted with an exacting attention to detail. They are, in fact, so painterly that they invite the viewer closer, encouraging a careful examination of the shadows and highlights in an attempt to perceive their true nature. In the book the images are the size of a postcard and so it is easy to mistake them for paintings. In his exhibitions, Gonnord displays the images much larger than life – sometimes four feet high, and so I expect, the effect is quite different.

The subjects and the images are timeless. The clothing gives nothing away: an overcoat, perhaps a scarf; sometimes there is no clothing, only a naked shoulder.

The portrayed are European punks, transients from Eastern Europe, Venetian Jews, Spanish and Portuguese peasants, Japanese geisha and yakuza, the Gypsies of Seville … There is beauty and there is a brutality – often combined in the same face.

I choose my contemporaries in the anonymity of the big cities because their faces, under the skin, narrate unique, remarkable stories about our era. Sometimes hostile or distant, almost always fragile behind the opacity of their masks, they represent specific social realities and another concept of beauty. I also try to approach the unclassifiable, timeless individual, to suggest things that have been repeated over and over since time began.

Born in France in 1963, Gonnord moved to Spain in his twenties and taught himself photography. He has been widely exhibited in Europe and in 2012 the French Consulate in Atlanta invited him to complete a residency and a series of photographs, using local American southerners as his subjects.

In the essay, “A New Perception of the Real” by Lorena Martinez de Corral (which accompanies the volume) Gonnord states:

The camera has been like a lifejacket for me, an opportunity to go towards the rest, to approach the Other, to overcome the limits of my shyness, of my loneliness, of my condition and also my taboos.

This sentiment is the echo of Diane Arbus’s relationship to her subjects, but where Arbus was uninterested in technical finesse, Gonnord has clearly perfected not only the art of photography but the painterly use of lighting to convey a specific conception of portraiture.

PHotoBolsillo publishes a series of monographs on “the most important Spanish photographers” in an “instructive yet readable format.” The books are similar to the popular Photo Poche series started by the Centre National de la Photographie in 1982 (and brought into the English-speaking world in 1989 by Thames and Hudson under the title Photofile).

Despite the PHotoBolsillo motto, the English translation of Lorena Martinez de Corral’s essay is not very readable, it is, in fact, awkward and a little painful. A minor complaint, and the only one I could make in the light of the pristine nature of the rest of this book.

The tiny volume on Pierre Gonnord is an excellent introduction to a masterful and provocative photographer.

 

Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review
Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review

Disclosure: A copy of Pierre Gonnord was purchased online.

Patrick Faigenbaum
Vancouver Art Gallery
March 9 – June 2, 2013
Co-curated by director Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010
silver chlorobromide print

On a rainy evening half-way through May, I walked to the Vancouver Art Gallery and took in the exhibition of Parisian photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. As I entered the gallery, there was a portrait visible from the main floor rotunda of the gallery. I am unable to resist an exhibition that works with the human face, and portraits comprise a major portion of Faigenbaum’s photographic practice. He is perhaps best known for a series of black and white group photos of the Italian aristocracy. Some are nothing but shades of dark grey, as if the light of the modern world could not penetrate the dusk of generations of family affluence.

The exhibit is co-curated by Jeff Wall, most famous of the “Vancouver School” photographers. But Wall also has an academic background in the arts – as assistant professor (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and associate professor (Simon Fraser University). His writing and teaching helped define the “Vancouver School” and positioned a number of his peers (Vikky Alexander, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham) within it.

The works of Faigenbaum comprise the fourth exhibition in this series intended to introduce internationally acclaimed artists to a North American audience. The curatorial text positioned at the entrance to the exhibition said as much, and I would repeatedly encounter the term “international acclaim” in relation to these portraits of Italian bluebloods. What I would not encounter was the explanation of the acclaim. Was it just the difficulty in gaining access to them? What made these different from any other family portrait? The wealth that adorned the end tables? I found that the pictures had begun to be treated like the idea of aristocracy itself. It was all in the adjective: one should feel a certain privilege simply to be in their presence. However, many of these family group sittings have a casual, almost careless composition and I found neither narrative nor poignancy in them. Which is odd given the months of planning necessary to set up the shoots. It is also peculiar given the prominence of this series in Faigenbaum’s oeuvre.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006
silver chromogenic print

Faigenbaum’s still life photographs recall his early ambitions as a painter. Curators and critics have also been quick to point out a painterly approach in his portraiture: “Faigenbaum’s use of chiaroscuro—strongly contrasting passages of light and dark—places him in a line of “old masters”, from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour to Rembrandt van Rijn.” (Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight). As with a sitting in front of an artist working in traditional media, Faigenbaum likes to take an extended period of time in order to let a feeling of quiet and calm develop. This feeling is evident in his strongest works.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print Collection of Marin Karmitz, Paris

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

It is also the feeling that is conspicuously absent in Faigenbaum’s street scenes. The shift from portraiture is not just a shift in content, it is a disconcerting change in approach and style leaving one feeling that one has missed something. Indeed, we have missed something, the shift from the aesthetic-based portraits to the “conceptual art” basis of his other works. Yet this transition goes unannounced, despite the fact that co-curator Jeff Wall is arguably the best person to make such an announcement.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

In the world of contemporary photography some images are so distinctive that only one person could have made them. The majority of Faigenbaum’s work seems almost unauthored, as if it could have been made by anyone. There is no signature lighting, no angle, no mood, no vision or subject matter to identify his genius.

I stood in an exhibition of photographs that were part quotidian street scenes and part formal sittings. I faced a large wall that held only one image. It depicted two people sitting at a restaurant table, their faces blackened by deep shadows, the table held general daily clutter, it could have been there, it could have not been there: a carton of cigarettes and a lighter; detritus. With the faces obscured and the visible content mundane, I asked myself why this image was hanging here.

The gallery copy tells me that “Patrick Faigenbaum creates a compelling ambience that isolates a moment outside the incessant flow of time, prompting the viewer to acknowledge the impossibility of fully understanding the complex narratives that extend beyond each image.” Yes, but what of the narrative within the image?

In a review by Shawn Connor of the Vancouver Sun, Faigenbaum mentions being drawn to photograph in Prague, citing an affinity for one of his favourite authors, Franz Kafka. “It’s this strangeness,” Faigenbaum said. “I always think about this when I look at my work: why is this going on?”

I could not reconcile the often beautifully still portraits with the other images in the exhibit. I could not answer “why is this going on?” And so I left the exhibit moved by the stillness of his portraits, and joyous before his lemons, but ultimately disappointed: with an inexplicable feeling that the artist’s best work (or some information vital to the understanding of his imagery) had been held back.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999
silver chromogenic print

References:

An Interview with Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum
by Here and Elsewhere
March 5th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum brings the flavours of Europe to the Vancouver Art Gallery: Painter-turned-photographer captures stately portraits of aristocrats, lively street scenes
by Shawn Connor, The Vancouver Sun
March 8th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs place him in line with “old masters”
by Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight
March 12, 2013

In the 19th century, the portrait resembled a small, private stage play. The subject of the portrait got ready, dressed appropriately, and set off the photographer’s. Once there, he entered the studio — which, with its plethora of props and necessary items such as chairs, armchairs, drapes, pictures and statuettes was reminiscent of a small stage — and was fitted into this grid of accessories. The background and furnishings were chosen, the pose and attitude rehearsed — “Wouldn’t you like to be holding a book in your hands?” — and finally the lighting was set up.

Urs Stahel
Afterwards: “After the climax” as a focal element in Rineke Dijkstra’a portrait photography