A happy new year to you all. We kicked off 2016 with the Chair’s evening and this year Maurice brought in a tutor to help us with our portraiture. So a good start with cameras and tripods to hand we welcomed Ruth Bennett, photography lecturer at St Brendan’s College, who led us in an informative, practical, evening.
The portrait, of course, predates the invention of photography by a long way, well about 2,500 years, which qualifies for me. Within the history of photography the invention of the Daguerreotype broadly signifies not only the start of the process as we know it, but also a gradual democratisation of the art form. It was still prohibitively expensive. The posing times came down though, as we have noted before, that probably troubled the dead subjects rather less than the living ones, as did the costs but it wasn’t until the 1860’s that the momentum really started to grow. And that required a change in technology. Shorter but by no means fast by modern standards exposure times, simpler processes, better image fixing to more widely available materials, such as paper, overall combining to bring the costs down and speeding up the production.
As the technology changed so did the scope of the imaginations of the photographers. Classical art initially was the ruler of taste and composition, especially the Neo-classical and the Rococo, but as the interest in and accessibility of art grew, styles changed, Romanticism and Realism developed as movements and it’s hard not to see that photography as a technology has an influence in this, at least as a provocateur – the French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire, thought it the “Enemy of Art” and was often rude about the medium at some length. The middle classes took up the form as it was more affordable than portraiture in oils, the number of professional photographers and the subjects they captured, grew. So did the uses of photographs. In the late 1850’s Carte-de-visite (visiting cards featuring portraits) became popular in France, then across Europe.
The first “Celebrity” photographer was Felix Nadar (1820-1910), who used optical and lighting, including artificial lighting, experiments to bring new qualities to his portraits of people such as Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, Franz List and Claude Debussy. Nadar (real name Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) managed to fit in the photography around drawing caricatures, writing novels, journalism and ballooning and used his interest in the latter to bring the mail into a besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Photography continues to borrow from art, Rembrandt (1606-1698) lighting taken from the artists use of a single high window to give a distinctive light and shadow, Renoir‘s distinct diffuse lighting is practiced through the use of reflectors. The medium moved on but truly became democratised by the Box Brownie in 1900. Arguably this is the point where photography as art and photography as pass time part company and the whole question of photography as art takes a class based twist.
The interpretation/record debate takes on a mass dimension, but family, friends, occasions people in different circumstances still remain the important subjects but with less artifice. That, however, is a different topic and one we have touched on before. The other great photographic expansion at this time is also film based, but one where the images move and after 1927, talk. But the key to promoting them was the still picture of the stars, possibly as an art form at its height in the 1930’s and 40’s. Butterfly lighting came from the cinema, it is also known as Paramount lighting after the studio, sometimes Glamour Lighting. Loop lighting, open and closed (closed see Rembrandt link above) and Split Lighting come from the same base makes for dramatic effects in quite subtle ways using shadows on the facial features (an overview of some of these techniques can be found here).
The style started to shift in the 1950’s with the impact of photojournalism on the portrait style, though movie stars were still the people setting the pace – rather the studios’ publicity departments were the people setting the pace. The style was more raw, more like today’s street and environmental styles, but the output was still strictly controlled by the studios. That control thing is still pertinent if harder to control today, if only because cameras are pretty much universal. As the 50’s became the 60’s this more casual style of portrait became the norm as the conventions of traditional art were thrown down. Andy Warhol fused the fine art and photography in his silk screen paintings of Marilyn Monroe based on a publicity still for the film Niagara. Bert Stern, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn picked up the baton laid down by the likes of Bob Willoughby, Phil Stern, Sid Avery, Peter Basch, Andre de Diene who had taken up where and others had lead in the 50’s. The movement towards a more candid approach to portraiture continued. On this side of the pond Snowden, Bailey, Donovan, Jane Brown and others.
Robert Mapplethorpe, is probably best known for his homoerotic images taken in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but that was only a part of his oeuvre and he was, in a sort of full circle, influenced by classical styles in his portraits. Yes he was often sexually explicit, yes his subjects could include Sadomasochism but pushing boundaries was part of who Mapplethorpe was. Well not so much pushing as driving a truck at, but that does not fundamentally undermine his technical abilities or his vision, regardless of your views on his distaste for convention, ironically using conventional, classical, ideas of beauty to deliver his art. The sensationalism of this part of his work often overshadows the portraiture of many well known artists and he was never short of sitters. Patti Smith, Marianne Faithful, Bruce Chatwin, Philip Glass, David Hockney among many others.
The late 80’s and 90’s also saw the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber rise to prominence among many others, technology changes, the spread of affordable video for instance and the growth of and acceptance of installation art – we have touched on this before so I’ll skip it here – and with them the shared mission of portraiture to go beyond just the image of the sitter to some other truth of character and moment. And it starts with lighting, which is where we came in.
N E X T M E E T I N G
John Chamberlain – “Images from around the World”.
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