1c Historic Portrait

Do some research into historic photographic portraiture.

Select one portrait to really study in depth. Write a maximum of 500 words about this portrait, but don’t merely ‘describe’ what you see. The idea behind this exercise is to encourage you to be more reflective in your written work (see Introduction), which means trying to elaborate upon the feelings and emotions generated whilst viewing an image.

The portrait can be any of your choice, but try to choose a historic practitioner of note. This will make your research much easier, as the practitioner’s works will have been collected internationally by galleries and museums and written about extensively.

Read what has already been written about your chosen practitioner’s archive, paying particular attention to what historians and other academics have highlighted in their texts.

Post your thought in your learning log or blog.

OCA, Photography 3: Identity & Place p. 24

The essay is shown first. Below that are my ‘workings’. This includes defining and refining an approach to evaluating photographs.

EssayEvaluation methodologyFirst draft


Sarah, Lawrence High School, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 2005
© Dawoud Bey

Subject’s statement,

I may be different, but I take silent comfort in my difference. My looks do not define who I am. I know that I am separate from the rest of my school because I look the way I do, not “normal”. What is normal anyways? And who decides what is normal? My soul is not dark. I have dealt with pain and misfortunes. I have also had wonderful people and experiences in my life. Everything I go through, the good and the bad, makes me a better person, not just a better person but stronger too. My experiences define who I am. I’ll tell you what I see when I look at myself. I see a young woman owning her individuality, being her own leader, not following the crowd, and I see a young woman who learns from everything around her. Now do I seem so strange?

Sarah

The photograph to be examined is Dawoud Bey’s Sarah…, 2005,  part of his Class Pictures project featuring students in school. These were made as part of a series of residences with various institutions across the US. While not historic in chronological terms, Bey’s output as a photographer has been overwhelmingly classical portraiture in terms of its purpose and setting.

The photograph depicts a young woman, dressed in black with heavy eye make-up, black nail varnish, a prominent silver-coloured necklace, bracelet and belt and large boots, that last included in the image because of the way she crosses her legs. Her wrists have fabric bracelets in blue and red that match her eye make-up.
The background is out of focus but discernible (given the series title) as a classroom wall. The colour of some of the wall decoration corresponds to the subject’s make-up and accessories. It is known that this correspondence is intentional because Bey describes that decision in his book (2019, p.87).

The photograph’s title gives the setting and the subjects’ statements were shown in the exhibition and published in the book of the project (Bey & Reynolds, 2007. Sarah’s statement, reveals that she regards herself as different from and excluded in some ways by her fellow students and the school community. She regards this separation as a source of strength.

In aesthetic terms, his portraits tend to be classic three-quarter length with contextual background detail, although he notes (Bey,  2019 p.58) that he makes full-length portraits where the subjects merit that treatment and to provide variety.

My schooling took place in a different era and continent from Sarah’s, nevertheless, she is around the same age as my son and so I will express my view in that context. Sarah’s text can be categorised as a relay in Barthes’ terms, where the text and image enhance each other. That said, the text seems at odds with the image. Sarah states that she is and looks different, separate from her fellows but her appearance, though sad, is not particularly unusual.  Her clothing and accessories and her makeup constitute a fashion statement: make-up, certainly of that distinction, would not have been allowed at my son’s school, but presumably was permitted at Lawrence High School, albeit Sarah’s might have been at the extreme end of the spectrum. My High School and my son’s were uniformed.

Sarah’s statement seems full of the bravura of youth, determined to make a stand and live by her own values. My attitude in the late 1960s was similar, eager to change the world, confident that it could be done, but that surface confidence was spread fairly thinly over a youth’s almost inevitable body of inexperience and uncertainty.
I would like to know what happened to her and how her life turned out.

André Wheeler (2020) refers to Bey’s ‘explorations of marginalized and misunderstood communities’ and, on Class Pictures, of giving ‘teenagers control over how viewers see them – preventing us from throwing preconceived notions and ideas on to them’. Bey has described his initial intention, ‘to challenge stereotypical representations of black urban subjects’ (Wolf, 2019, p.18), and this was later extended to other minorities.
Bey has done more than, perhaps, any other contemporary US photographer to portray individuals from under-represented minorities sympathetically, especially his own African American community.

word count 552


Methodology

[10Aug20] There are two opening questions here:
1. which photograph; and
2. what methodology for analysis.


Let’s look at the second question first.

The quest for a definable evaluating methodology will continue throughout I&P and, no doubt, through subsequent courses. I have tried to pull together my conclusions on the previous courses and I show my workings here.

My approach is currently —

When writing about a picture —

1. Look at the objective, denoted, aspects – describe the picture, its subject and its peripheral contents.

1a. Consider the title or accompanying text, Barthes’ anchor and relay.

2. Find quotes from the artist and from critics on the particular work or their general approach. Comment on the photographer’s physical and technical choices. If relevant, include the photographer’s political or other views at the time the work was created (they might change).

3. Look for the subjective, connoted, aspects and speculate on how they might be interpreted and why the artist chose to include them. Note how various viewers’ backgrounds, environments and circumstances might engender different reactions. Include an overall reaction to the æsthetics of the piece, its technical qualities (or failings) and why the photographer might have chosen to create it.

4. Look at the piece in the wider context of the artist’s work, how it might relate to other artists and other art forms.

5. Comment on the display environment if reviewing a particular instance, or the effect of different environments.

6. Deploy the appropriate technical terms throughout.

The sequence of these steps has yet to be determined: it could be that the sequence should be adjusted depending on the type of image. Time may tell.

In some circumstances it might be appropriate to discuss why a particular image was chosen as a subject.


Turning now to the which photograph question, I have had in mind for a while one of Dawoud Bey’s as I have been reading his 2019 book, on Photographing People and Communities. The only issue is, does this count as an ‘historic portrait’?

[12Aug] Returning to this question the next day, I conclude that the question of historicity is not important and the image itself is not particularly important: this is only an exercise and the approach taken is what matters at this early stage of the course. Bey it is.


First Draft

The photograph that I have chosen for this exercise is Dawoud Bey’s Sarah, taken in 2005. Its full title is Sarah, Lawrence High School, Lawrence, Massachusetts and it is part of his Class Pictures project in which he photographed students in school settings which he chose as appropriate. These were undertaken as part of a series of residences with various institutions across the US.

The photograph is only 15 years old and so may not fit the definition of historic portraiture in purely chronological terms but it might be considered a classical portrait in terms of its purpose and setting and Bey’s output as a photographer has been overwhelmingly portraiture. It came to mind as a subject because I have just been reading Bey’s on Photographing People and Communities (2019) in which he describes his career and his craft.

This exercise is the first trial run of my newly defined analytical methodology (see above) and so I will waive the word restriction and try to cover as many of the target points as are relevant. If it works, I might rework the essay to size. I will include sub headings.

1. Denoted and text

The photograph depicts a young woman, dressed in black with heavy eye make-up, black nail varnish, a prominent silver-coloured necklace, bracelet and belt and large boots, that last included in the image because of the way she crosses her legs. Her wrists have fabric bracelets in blue and red that match her eye make-up.

The background is out of focus but discernible as a classroom wall, given that it is implicit in the series title. The colour of some of the wall decoration corresponds to the subject’s make-up and accessories. It is known that this correspondence is intentional because Bey describes that decision in his book.

The photograph’s title gives basic identification information: the subject’s first name and the school she attends. Accompanying the image (and the others in the series) is a statement by the subject. Bey had previously experimented with audio recordings of interviews with his subjects which were played with the exhibited photographs. Written statements were regarded as more versatile over a range of display formats. Sarah’s statement, shown above, reveals that she regards herself as different from and excluded in some ways by her fellow students and the school community. She regards this separation as a source of strength.

2. Third party comments, photographers theoretical and stylistic choices

Fayemi Shakur, writing in the NY Times (2018) describes how Bey ‘[frames] his subjects with subtlety, he concentrates on people others take for granted’ and quotes Bey as saying ‘I wanted to make photographs that affirmed the lives of ordinary black people in the community’ and later, ‘I make the work that I do in order to visualize the things that are important to me, and to make them matter to someone else, whether that is the black subject, young people, history, the ways in which black physical and social space is being reshaped’

André Wheeler in the Guardian (2020) refers to Bey’s ‘explorations of marginalized and misunderstood communities’ and, on Class Pictures, of giving ‘teenagers control over how viewers see them – preventing us from throwing preconceived notions and ideas on to them’

Bey himself has stated this as his purpose,

… to challenge stereotypical representations of black urban subjects

in Wolf’s Photo Work:.. (2019), p. 18

In taking this stance Bey has done more than, perhaps, any other contemporary US photographer to portray individuals from under-represented minorities sympathetically, especially his own African American community.

In aesthetic terms, his portraits tend to be classic three-quarter length with contextual background detail (although he also notes in his 2019 book that he makes full-length portraits where the subjects merit that treatment and to provide variety,

You have to change up the way you make pictures so they result in something … varied, so that they’re not all made from the same vantage point or subject-to-camera distance. When making photographs of people, you have from close up to full body to everything in between; use it.

Bay, 2009, p.58

Bey has varied the equipment he uses over his career but always favoured larger-format media to maximise quality and detail. He goes into this in some detail in Wolf (2019, p.19) †.

3. Connoted

As a person of age, my schooling took place in a different environment from Sarah’s, nevertheless, she is around the same age as my son and so my view will be in that context. The text that Sarah has provided can be categorised as a relay in Barthes’ terms, where the text and image enhance each other. That said, to me, the text is at odds with the image: Sarah states that she is different, separate from her fellows. But she looks pretty ordinary to me: glum, her clothing and accessories and her makeup a fashion statement. Make-up, certainly of that distinction, would not have been allowed at my son’s school (or, more precisely, at the associated girl’s school), but presumably it was permitted at Lawrence High School, albeit Sarah’s might have been at the excessive end of the spectrum. My High School and my son’s were uniformed.
Sarah’s statement seems full of the bravura of youth, determined to make a stand and live by her own values. My attitude in the late 1960s was similar, eager to change the world, confident that it could be done, but that surface confidence was spread fairly thinly over a youth’s almost inevitable body of inexperience and uncertainty.
Most of all, I would like to know what happened to her and how her life turned out.
Regarding the background details of the image, we are told it is a school room and there is no reason to question that.

4. The artists oeuvre and relation to other artists

Bey is renowned for his portrait photography which began on the streets of Harlem. This was partly in response to a 1969 MoMA exhibition Harlem on my Mind which featured predominantly African American (Bey’s description) subjects but few photographers of that background and none were involved in the organisation of the exhibition. This was a time of growing awareness and political activity within that community and members complained about and picketed the exhibition. This action triggered Bey’s political awareness and his informed and influenced his photography throughout his career (Bey, 2019, pp. 18, 23). A recent New York Times article on Bey’s career was entitled, Dawoud Bey: 40 Years of Photos Affirming the ‘Lives of Ordinary Black People (Shaku, 2018) and the other articles used in support of this essay follow a similar theme (see Warner, 2018 and Wheeler, 2020)

5. Display environment

The Class Pictures project was created as part of Bey’s residency in Chicago (and continued elsewhere) with the intention of displaying the portraits, the student statements and portraits from the Smart Museum’s collection, chosen by Bey and the students. It was later published as a book.

In Wolf’s Photo Work:.. (2019), Bey was asked whether he approaches his projects with a particular display medium in mind and replies,

With my Class Pictures project I knew I wanted the work ultimately to be published as a book [2007], but even before it was published it was seen in a series of exhibitions … I always visualize my work in an exhibition context ans I am making it … I’m thinking about: how it’s going to look on the wall.

in Wolf’s Photo Work:.. (2019), pp.20-21

6. Revisit technical terms

Denoted and connoted covered, text anchoring / relay covered. The other options for inclusion are:

Punctum and studium – work those in. Intertextuality. Display environment = Barthes’ channel of transmission

† Over the more than forty years that I’ve been making photographs, I’ve made pictures working in the street, initially with a handheld 35 mm camera and black-and-white material, and then a tripod-mounted 4-by-5 camera with a Polaroid back and Type 55 positive/negative film; then I moved into the studio and spent eight years making colour photographs, using the 20-by-24 Polaroid View Camera, with light and backdrops. After that I went back to the 4-by-5 and colour material, and more recently a tripod-mounted 6-by-7 camera, and now a handheld 6-by7 camera. I do think my work is as much about exploring the possibilities of picture-making as it is about the subjects I’m interested in.

in Wolf’s Photo Work:.. (2019), pp.19

[17Aug] That’s worked reasonably well for a first run with the revised methodology. It’s disjointed but there’s a reasonable amount of meat on the bone. Next is to try word count it and then reorganise and reduced to the target.
The sequencing of sections is fine, but the rearrangement is likely to change for each usage when we see what information has been assembled.

A rather surprising 1,241 including the titles and quotes.


References

Bey, D. (2019) on Photographing People and Communities. NY: Aperture

Bey, D. & Reynolds, J.(2007) Class Pictures. New York, Aperture.

MoCP (n.d.) Bey, Dawoud [online]. mocp.org. Available from https://www.mocp.org/detail.php?type=related&kv=6893&t=people [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Shakur, F. (2018) Dawoud Bey: 40 Years of Photos Affirming the ‘Lives of Ordinary Black People’ [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/lens/dawoud-bey-seeing-deeply.html [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Warner, M. (2018) Dawoud Bey, Places in History [online]. bjp-online.com. Available from https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/12/dawoud-bey-places-in-history/ [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Wheeler, A. (2020) ‘Blackness is not a straitjacket on the imagination’: the photography of Dawoud Bey [online]. theguardian.com. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/feb/17/dawoud-bey-photographer-sf-moma [Accessed 14 August 2020].

Wolf, S. (2019) Photo Work: forty photographers on process and practice. New York: Aperture Foundation