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Preface & Reader Response



Portraiture is a marriage of subject, portraitist, and viewer.

 


IN ANOTHER LIFE



ICONS OF AFFECTION

by Jerry Murley

For me, portraiture occupies a secure and honored place in the first family of art. But one need not be an artist to capture a beautiful, interesting, or enduring portrait. Often it is the product of chance – a collision of means, opportunity, and curiosity about the landscape of humankind.


To my mind, a good portrait shows an individual unburdened by self-consciousness, unencumbered by the shroud of culture and society – a person uninhibited, open to investigative eyes, and revealed to time. Old shriveled people stripped of their clothing, and any vestige of dignity, are not for my tastes. Neither are posed nudes under the guise of art. Nor am I interested in capturing impoverished spirits – the soft porn of do-gooders. I want a steady image of a human being who courageously bares an inherent and manifest shared humanity, who bares the bruises and glories of the human condition. I want an image of an individual who represents his time and place in history without costuming himself in order to hide his inner life and past.

Portraiture is the marriage of subject, portraitist, and viewer. The subject assumes an almost flat affect, dropping defenses and secondary masks as if the portraitist and viewer do not exist, as if the subject is looking through the portraitist and viewer, just as the viewer is looking through the portraitist. There is a reason that passport photographs seek this disposition: it is more revealing of natural features and the consistent psychology beneath obscuring layers. A portraitist identifies the salient aspects of a being, but a portrait is not concerned with identity. A passport picture, taken by an uninterested party in service of compulsory identification, is not a portrait.


Some, particularly the subject and his or her relatives, carry-on about likeness and the replication of personal ideals. Taken to excess, such preoccupations miss the point of portraiture entirely. Who has ever encountered two people who have the same view of a person or a portrait, whether a masterpiece or not? Such differences are natural, given that we are not one person even to ourselves – and particularly to external observers. We inhabit a hall of reflections: we are one thing in one instance and another in the next.

A deserving specimen of portraiture is but a glimmer of breathing life as seen through eyes of an observer who reaches out to slow time by beholding another person, a person performing in (rather than sitting for) the manufacture of a still image. One need not tell subjects what to do, for subjects improvise an assemblage of personhood – they summon the crystalline pose of a moment. Then the portraitist accents and alters as he sees fit. The worthy portrait is a statement of both participants and the viewer, as well, who perhaps possesses preconceived notions about the subject or portraitist or pictorial setting. If the portrait is beautiful or unique in some interesting way, it is a good portrait. If it is supremely executed, it might or might not be an excellent portrait.


At its most basic, a good portrait captures the bitter and sublime impermanence of life. Portraiture cannot be separated from time. In these terms, the notion of actual immortality implies nihilism. An interesting work may not have been intended that way – with fundamental meaning linked to time – but if the portrait endures and it is a just portrait of a life, it will represent a fleeting essence nonetheless. That is its universality and its principal value.

There is no need for a portraitist to concoct high-flown allegories and idealizations. I am aware enough of my limitations as an amateur portraitist to get out of the way of subjects. Still, substantive assets are required for the task: the willingness and ability to see attributes of which others may be less aware and the possession of fortuitous timing and the tools with which to capture and construct a coherent composition. Good subjects may not be absolutely free of self-consciousness, but they exhibit enough confidence to let the chips fall where they may, or they hold sufficient trust, perhaps with a touch of reserve, to allow the portraitist to see them briefly as they actually are.

* * *


As in the examples above, in a self-portrait the subject and portraitist are separate entities. In part due to the reduction of controls under the circumstances, defenses are dropped.

A self-portrait differs from a modern-day selfie, which seeks proof of context for immediate advertisement, in that it portrays an observer viewing himself as if a stranger for no immediate gain. There are in effect two subjects in a self-portrait: the portraitist and the foreign body that he ponders. In a self-portrait, there is a curiosity about self that gazes foursquare into posterity and says this is me, but I am not sure what I see or whom you see.


A portraitist seeks a face, a character, a psychological experience, that compels exploration. He invites a countenance that is both assertive and tentative, both revealing and concealing, both accessible and confounding. He waits for open, slightly guarded access and, sometimes, for time itself to work its way, its sculpting, its scarring, its ravages, and its artistry. Remarkable faces, intricate, changeable, personal landscapes of better-than classical beauty, lie dormant everywhere. One has only to lift lazy lids and dare be amazed, dare show interest, dare look beyond ordinary filters that accrue like crust on human senses, callouses of countless disappointments and constant retreat, to see the extraordinary in one's local shops, in one's workplace, in one's kitchen, in the mirror of the universe that tells us that we live but once and briefly and know it – that we live with others of our kind who are much like us and our equals.



FOOTNOTES:

1. This photograph was made in my makeshift hallway studio at home. One could question whether to call this photograph a portrait. It is obviously playful. But it contains enough truth and spontaneity to stand as a portrait of a particular pair of partners riding out the experiment known as marriage. And from another angle, in terms of the wear of years, it fully meets the requirement to matter-of-factly confront time itself.

2. These portraits may indeed have been attempts to manufacture passport photographs at home. But again, time is a primary factor in their inclusion in this collection. In addition, they reveal outstanding qualities of the individual subjects in a frank, thorough, calm, and, I think, beautiful way.

3. It is difficult to determine when a friendly snapshot becomes a portrait. Time alone qualifies this one. The interest of the portraitist is intense. And again, the essence of the individual is very clear and truthful. From hindsight, resilience and clear-minded resolve are attributes of this face and bearing.

4. I dearly love this photograph. It above all herein is definitely a portrait – one of merit, I hope. It is irreplaceable, as are they all. The person that you see in the photograph is a person who walked the earth with unquestionable confidence. And he literally walked, commanded – even hitchhiked – the streets of Memphis at will until physically prevented from doing so.

5. Time, time, time – it and the aging genes are irrepressible foes. We are victorious over them only when we recognize them and bow to them ever so reluctantly but gently.

 

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