Apparitions: A Meditation on the Portrait in Photography

by James McArdle

We do not exist in isolation, yet so many photographs, supposed to be portraits, show us alone. We flow through time and are not frozen as a photograph is frozen. An archetypal analogy for life is the river. If Narcissus were to look at his image in a photograph instead of in a river he would not find a true representation of this process of dynamic change that is himself. The mirrored image changes with us, the photograph does not. We inhabit a space, our place, not the flat two-dimensional surface we see on photographs. Our identity arises from a sense of self and other, of place and placement. To reveal in my photographs that the people in them live in relationships with others and in the world is an ambition that is nevertheless difficult to achieve because of the limitations of my medium. The effort necessitates invention and I am not really concerned about whether such invention constitutes a form of Art. It is photography. The research necessary has occupied my current activity but of course relies on discoveries made in previous years of practise and in the work of others that inspires me. This writing has included some of these, but is not complete without my outlining my own discoveries and innovations, though my photographs should do this best on their own.

It has been said that it is the task of the portraitist to represent a whole life-story at one moment of that life by means of condensation.

Degas "The Bellelli Family"
Edgar Degas "The Bellelli Family" (1858-67. Oil on canvas, 200 x 250 cm. Paris: Musee d'Orsay)

Degas' painting of the Bellelli Family intrigues me in this way because it reveals a terrible truth about the family, learned by Degas through his great fondness for his aunt Laura. No doubt, each member of the unhappy family was posed separately to complete a scene imagined or remembered. Though it looks real, with its attention to the incidentals of a family in a domestic interior, it is a fabrication.

A 'straight' photographer like myself (and I am a essentially a 'purist') could create such an image only by posing them in this way together. Would they pose their vulnerabilities for such a photographer? Could the photograph look the same and portray as much? James Agee's Now Let Us Praise Famous Men contains similar human drama, but do Walker Evans' photographs of the protagonists?Walker Evans photo
Walker Evans, Bud Fields and his Family, Hale County, Alabama, 1936

I am not proposing that group portraits are superior to solitary faces, but that there is a relationship established in certain images between persons and between persons and places that conveys spiritual/emotional/psychological qualities just as colour expresses itself better in relation to other colours than in isolation.

A photographer's subjects might also not know how they are being portrayed, unless the image is made in a ritualistic way, as snapshots are, where the result is predictable, pre-ordained by established concepts of the family and its roles and the well established conventions of family snaps. But they always show more and when we look at them from the future we can see they are prophecies.

What you might see about to happen in my photographs too, has happened. They often look like family photographs. Marriages have failed, children been born. I can know this because I know the people. But the photograph comes before, it is 'Before' and because the subjects are anonymous the viewer cannot know what comes after any more than I can tell you what they will do tomorrow. In this way, what starts as a document ends looking as much a like fiction as a predictive biography might, if there is such a thing.

The people in front of the camera and those inside the camera are not replicas of each other. Those outside are people, those inside are ghosts. Obvious, but so often confused. To make images that are as telling as portraits are supposed to be, is only possible if the photographer is aware of this distinction and aware that the ghost in the camera poses as the person. This becomes obvious when you look at the ground glass at an image inverted and reversed. I am using a large format camera, a Sinar, Sinar Camera that is actually intended for studio work. Instead of the traditional dark cloth I strap onto my head a close-fitting mask attached to the groundglass screen via bellows. Physically I am in the camera. One looks at the subject as an image, not framing it as through a viewfinder. After some moments of concentration the inverted image seems to right itself but it is always laterally reversed, as in a mirror. These physical differences between inside the camera and outside, along with the slowness of the process, means that the people I photograph are with each other, not with me. The subject who is supposed to be in an inferior, less powerful, position in front of the photographer and those who will see them in the photograph is in fact not in this situa tion. I get out of my camera and stand beside it to expose the film - you cannot view the ground glass at this point because the film is put in its place - and I try to see as the camera sees. Waiting tensely, I am embarrassed, nervous and trying to vanish so as not to affect what goes on between my 'sitters'. Its the almost unbearable tension one feels watching a good mystery film. What is going to happen, can I predict, am I wrong, have I seen the clues? The only way to cut the tension is to leave the cinema or endure till the end.

I am moved to make portraits of the people I know. I cannot make these people up - they must exist in order to for me to photograph them. Nor can I really control them them in front of the camera - I have enough to do dealing with their image. The faces they present to me, to others, to the camera, conceal and reveal themselves, their selves. In order to portray them I must know them, otherwise all I can show you is a 'likeness' which may conceal them or reveal them. There is something in here, in between the known face and what it reveals, and it reveals so much to those that know it, and the possibility of knowing someone only from their face in a photograph. It makes me distrust faces, and photographs that contain only faces.

A life story is a like a mystery film, portrayal a form of detection. Photography has been linked often to death, which means the portrait photograph is like a corpse. How can this be when it is so easy to believe in the life in the photo? But the act of portrayal through photography is close to death in that it is like a eulogy that is at the same time a conversation. People in portraits are speaking to us, but at the same time they are being represented. The representation can be honest or dishonest, portrayal or betrayal - in portraiture there is a definite moral dimension - it is an exchange or a promise or a contract. In a photograph the 'moral dimension' becomes a visual exchange using as currency all the metaphor that can be assembled in the image.

Metaphor in photography is a process of using the descriptive nature of the medium to find appearances that name the subject. In photography the image can contain a great deal more than just the face - the 'likeness' - there is an embarrassing wealth of space in a photograph with which to do this and the medium will almost automatically create a likeness of everything in that space. A solution is to cover that 'everything' with background paper as in Richard Avedon's fashion shots and portraits, or hide it in darkness, leaving only the 'subject', as in so many of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs, or move in so close that the 'everything' is cropped away. Another, contemporary, solution is to import metaphors (objects, costumes, colours, historical or political references etc.) into the orbit of the photograph as Clegg and Gutmann or Cindy Sherman do.

I photograph in an environment full of accidental topographical detail. In planning and arranging one of these photographs, my main concern is searching out the right place, of visualising the couples or friends or families together there. Views from different positions from within the place, as from among the human relationships to be portrayed, are unique sights. © James McArdleThrough their relationships the people will focus each other and the place. Just as the couple, about to separate, and their son do in 'Arrangement' . The camera is placed in relation to the focal point they create. Clues, names for emotions, interactions, rapports, intimacies, histories, alliances or betrayals are somewhere in this space. They may take the form of a balancing rock, a dead dog, the open roof of the walled quarry, the webbed reflection of branches, a kind of light, a shadow that looks like a wing. Their discovery is an intuitive one for myself in producing the image, and an enigmatic process for the viewer. In this way, in a still photograph which in itself has no beginning or end, mystery and discovery co-exist , overlap and fold out.

Focus is a visual meta-language, a voice-over, an image of and about the image, to indicate the signs of detection. The view camera is capable of rendering things more sharply than my myopic eyes can see them. I choose what is sharp to indicate where I am looking, what was seen. In the groundglass, with the aperture wide open, focus seems to be a tangible substance that can be physically moulded by movements of the camera. A plane of focus is a fourth dimension, an overlay that makes space tangible or creates voids, that concentrates meaning out of the chaos of time and space - the environment - coalescing in detail and forming interconnections.

What is known and what is unknown are here together.

You see these apparitions before you. These are relationships that I know, that I love and try to comprehend. Here in these photographs they are anonymous but not without naming. If they are not themselves, then who else are they?

James McArdle