Friday, July 11, 2008

three questions for carmen winant, part 3

part three of three questions for Carmen Winant. (thanks again, Carmen! come back and visit anytime.)

Subjectify: What are you looking for when you photograph a subject?

Carmen Winant: I think that contemporary photographers are inclined to posture their subjects as either completely aware or unknowing of the camera’s gaze. (I always think of how Hellen Van Meene’s young subjects rarely acknowledge the camera. Even when they do, their gaze seems hazily unfixed and unspecific.) But of course there is a liminal space—between the manufactured nature of Gregory Crewdson’s work and the sincerity of Robert Frank’s—and that is what I am continually striving to tap when taking pictures of the people in my life. Because the two poles can be quite seductive, it is easy to overlook the substantive and interesting ground between the performed and the unstaged. I think several interesting young photographers right now, like Gilda Davidian and Amy Elkins, are exploring that grey area of representing subjectivity without much distance or irony.

Richard Avedon said that he wished there could be no camera at all, that his eye could be his only mechanism of transferal. For me, however, the camera is a protagonist in producing strong portraits. I shoot film with a Hasselblad 501c, and it requires a deliberate set-up, a relatively long time to focus (which I sometimes consciously extend to increase the slight discomfort of my sitter), and an almost violent, gun-like release. I want a contrived and a sincere subject, and it doesn’t seem to me that the two have to deny each other.

Concerning the difference between a portrait and a biography, my friend, poet Geoffrey Hillsebeck wrote to me once:
A portrait doesn't make a claim while a biography does. That’s often the difference between visual art and the written word. Do portraits always present what is mysterious in the subject; do they always confront you with the impossibility of the enterprise? Can one know Madame X or Rembrandt better by standing in front of the paintings longer, the way one gets to know friends better by spending more time with them? Rembrandt said he wanted to get at the "deepest inward emotion" of his subjects. Biographies never try to do that. They are always supremely conventional, in structure, organization, approach. They are works of history usually, not imagination.


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Thomas said...

This aspect of "portraiture" is also interesting to me. I feel that a photograph of a person is not a portrait unless the subject knows what is going on. It doesn't have to be consensual, but they do need to know that their image is being recorded. It doesn't require eye contact either, as coyness or indifference are among many perfectly valid responses to direct inspection by a portraitist.

If the subject is unaware, it seems more like voyeurism, or journalism or just a chicken shit lack of courage in the photographer. A photograph with a person in it can be described in many ways other than a portrait... t

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