After returning from a wonderful trip to the beautiful town of Charleston, SC a few years ago, I received a huge inspirational dose and renewal of art appreciation after absorbing its many galleries and exhibits.
Being in a town that encourages and develops artistic creation is a wonderful experience, especially when sharing it with other loved ones who have that common interest like Jeff and his parents who were with us on this family holiday trip.
The experience got me thinking about art in general and, in the photography business, what portraits really represent.
To start my research, I looked up the definition of “portrait” and found the following from a variety of sources…
- A pictorial representation (as in a painting) of a person usually showing the face
- A likeness of a person, especially one showing the face, that is created by a painter or photographer, for example.
- A work of art that represents a specific person, a group of people, or an animal. Portraits usually show what a person looks like as well as revealing something about the subject’s personality. Portraits can be made of any sculptural material or in any two-dimensional medium.
- Portraiture is the field of portrait making and portraits in general. (An encyclopedia definition) — portraiture, the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual. The principal portrait media are painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography. From earliest times the portrait has been considered a means to immortality. Many cultures have attributed magical properties to the portrait: symbolization of the majesty or authority of the subject, substitution for a deceased individual’s living presence or theft of the soul of the living subject.
As you can see from the above definitions, portraiture encompasses a broad range of ideas, emotions, and media — but all with a central theme… people transcending normal physical form and existence and becoming art.
Man as Art
One of the most beautiful and interesting portrait books in our library highlights the idea of people as art. It’s appropriately called, “Man As Art: New Guinea.”
This large “coffee table” size book (copyright 1981) is by Malcolm Kirk and it presents a stunning body of work. On Malcolm Kirk’s website, he shares a handful of his wonderful photos to view.
To capture images, Kirk used a 35mm camera, 55-mm lens, and Kodachrome film.
To gain trust and a “quick and friendly rapport” with the tribes people, he used “one invaluable piece of equipment” — a Polaroid camera.
Digital, of course, changes the way we would work in a similar situation today, but the process and importance of gaining trust and rapport before you start making portraits remains the same!
In his trip to New Guinea, Kirk took portraits of tribes people who have decorated their body using items from nature such as feathers, clay, mud, animal skins, bones, hair, teeth (including human hair and teeth), shells, grasses, moss, and more.
The amazing and vibrant colors seen in the painted faces are mostly obtained from natural items, too, with an occasional use of artificial paints.
I especially like the use of a heavy coating of colored clay, which, when dried, creates a thick flaking look, like an artificial mask. Only the eyes convey a sense of a life. The extreme close-up photography on these shots is breathtaking.
The ability of the tribes people to creatively use what is available to them to create art is amazing and has no limits. I’ll bet they didn’t wait around or interrupt their self-decorating because they didn’t have a certain special item, like the plumage of the Cassowary bird! They effectively used what they had available to create their works of art.
Note — Okay, now you know I can’t let this go without quoting Jeff’s famous line, “Do what you can with the resources you currently have available to you.”
Jeff here… Hey, and I can’t let that go without telling you a quick story… When we were in Charleston I was talking to a gallery owner who was showing us some photographs. They were the best selling works in her gallery. And they were made with the most primitive camera on the planet — a pinhole camera — which is basically a box, some film, and a little hole. Again, people respond to ideas, stories, and results, not technology — do what you can do with what ya got!
Is it art?
There’s a scene in the movie “Mona Lisa Smile” with some interesting dialog between the professor, played by Julia Roberts, and her students. It goes something like this…
Professor: “What is art? What is good or bad and who decides?” [holding up a portrait to show the class] “Is it art?”
Student: “It’s a snapshot.”
Professor: “If I told you Ansel Adams had taken it, would that make a difference?”
Student: “Art isn’t art until someone says it is.”
Professor: “Who are they?
In the “Forward” section of Malcom Kirk’s book he says, “We lean on scholars and critics to interpret the works of artists in the mistaken belief that verbal articulacy is synonymous with visual sensibility.”
The New Guinea tribes people transcend words by using their bodies to create art. In their world, the human form becomes art, as do the photographs of them.
What is communicated through those photographs goes beyond “verbal articulacy.” So, get the book, or at least view some of the photos included in the book, and realize we are much like them, and the people we photograph, are also works of art.
If you get a chance to view or purchase Man As Art, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed (Amazon has some very affordable copies). Not only are the photos stunning and beautifully composed (with no distracting backgrounds!), but there’s very interesting detailed information about each photograph including the materials used to create the artful man.
Art takes many forms, and, if you’re a portrait photographer, strive for the times your client says, “You don’t just take pictures, you take works of art.”
“What is a face, really? Its own photo? Its make-up? Or is it a face as painted by such or such painter? That which is in front? Inside? Behind? And the rest? Doesn’t everyone look at himself in his own particular way? Deformations simply do not exist.” — Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish artist. Arts de France, no. 6 (Paris, 1946). Quoted in: Picasso on Art (edited by Dore Ashton, 1972).