Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Alec Soth on video" - Featured Comment - new american portraits

Popping back to the Alec Soth portraiture post, Claudio Cambon made the following comment which for me really got to the heart of things. He starts by affirming Soth's comments about the visceral experience of the 8x10 ground glass, but then goes on to comment on contemporary portraiture in general (though I don't think Soth in particular). He says - much more clearly and eloquently - pretty much what I was trying to say about contemporary portraiture way back here (the humdrum portraits trend), especially the part I have emphasised in the last paragraph:

"...I do love the "movie" feeling of the large ground glass; I feel like I'm in my own camera obscura, my own world, as Soth says... I also agree that a lot of the time portaits with smaller cameras are hard because the person doesn't know who to interact with more, you or the camera. Larger cameras definitely create a remove that allows a person to confess directly to the lens; in many situations minimizing one's own presence can really help.

I also agree that the photographs measure the distance between photographer and subject perhaps more than the subject itself, but ultimately I find many contemporary photographers too complacent about this distance. I feel it becomes a way to be safe, not to engage; it's too comfortable.

I should emphasize that I don't mind distance per se. I think, for example, that Walker Evans was a master at photographing both the social and class distance he felt from his subjects, which was huge, and at the same time the very personal sense of shock he felt at how they lived, which was overwhelming. That is why pictures such as the series for "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" are at once almost icy in their gaze (Kirstein called it a "puritanical stare"), and at the same time so immediate and piercing for me. For being so far away and close at the same time, they are very honest pictures.

On the other hand much contemporary work that holds this distance doesn't elaborate on what that distance means for them. I feel like asking, "OK, so you feel removed, but what do feel about being removed?" I don't sense anything particular about it, be it dismay or nostalgia or desire or whatever; I'm not hearing the photographer's voice. There is little contact, or transgression, or crossing boundaries. The pictures are good, but somehow often not dynamic enough for me. Distance as a kind of objectivity doesn't bother me, but distance as neutrality does."

Admittedly, I haven't seen it in person, but I think this applies to many (though not by any means all) of the examples on the current hot A New American Portrait show at Jen Bekman Gallery (more here)

1 comment:

Stan B. said...

When old school photographers talk portraits, it's always about the exchange between photographer and subject- and what they do to facilitate, enhance or encourage such interaction that will hopefully infuse a certain magic into a revealing final image. Avedon engaged his sitter verbally while beside the camera right to the moment of exposure.

It was interesting to hear Soth discuss distance, distancing and creating his own little world hidden under the cloth. Not knocking it, it can create some very interesting results in the hands of a master, for exactly the reasons Soth mentioned. In the hands of those less experienced, you can also get a lot of blank stares, as if looking for direction. Get a big enough collection of those blank stares, and you got a whole new style- the Becherization of portraiture.