Update: this article seems to have spawn a number of different opinions. Which, we must admit, makes us rather happy – discussion, as someone much brighter than me has said, is an exchange of knowledge. More importantly, argument is an exchange of ignorance. While the photograph described at the beginning of this article is not actually all that important for the said discussion, a lot of our readers have expressed their curiosity and wish to see the reason for this article popping up in my head. And no matter how tastefully and subtly done, please do note it contains nudity, and if that is something you’d prefer your children not to see – or something you would prefer not to see yourself – take caution. For the rest, click here and enjoy.
Several weeks ago, I came upon what I think was a magnificent black-and-white photograph. It portrayed a young, rather skinny woman laying graciously on the ground somewhere in a forest clearing, naked. She was lying on her side, half curled up around a large, moss-covered rock. So different from it in most every way possible – warm, alive, sensitive – she was embracing it gently. The photograph was taken from directly above the young woman and, through the use of loose central composition, negative space and beautiful natural light, she, as the main subject, would instantly draw the viewers eye, her skin so pale and bright against what must have been dark green, brown Autumn foliage. While I will not be publishing this photograph here for obvious reasons (Photography Life is 100% child-safe and will always remain so), I must note there was not a hint of erotica about the photograph. Rather, a very subtle, tasteful tribute to the human body. Fine art. Pure, light. Airy somehow. I called it sensual at first, but many misunderstood me, or perhaps I chose the wrong word. Sensuous is a much better fit. I could not help but admire it for what seemed like hours. And then I read a comment left by one of the viewers: “This is not a portrait. It is a piece of fine art nude photography”, – he stated.
What I had not immediately noticed, was that the author specified his work as a portrait rather than an example of artistic nude photography depicting the materiality (or, perhaps, spirituality) of a human body and its place in, and coherent with, nature. But, at first glance, it was hardly a portrait. The subject’s body was definitely presented very graciously in a very aesthetically pleasing, interesting manner, but one could hardly make out her face all that well, let alone study it more deeply. Did the author make a mistake defining his work whilst publishing it? Instead of jumping to that conclusion and agreeing with the comment left by one of the viewers – agreeing with my own initial interpretation – I opened up my mind and, just for a second, looked at the photograph as if it was indeed a portrait. If the author did not make a mistake, his attempt to introduce the photograph as a portrait was deliberate. Which means that there was a reason to do so. And I was simply staggered by what I saw. “This is not a portrait. It is a piece of fine art nude photography.” Wrong. It was a portrait. Very much so. Calm, poetic, and much, much better than if it were just fine art nude. Simply because it was so much more personal, so much more profound and powerful as a portrait than it would have been if interpreted the way that seemed more obvious, more natural at first, whilst retaining all that was so positive of my initial interpretation. Seeing it as a portrait added depth to what was already a pleasing, well-sorted photograph. And you couldn’t even see her face properly.
It would be a little silly of me to try and explain why I felt this photograph was so good when I can’t even show it to you, but, as contradictory as that may sound at first, it is actually not important. What is important is the number of questions that instantly popped up in my head as soon as I interpreted what seemed like an artistic nude photograph as if it were a portrait, a conclusion one would hardly draw without the author’s aid. If a photograph that does not even show the subject’s face can be interpreted as a portrait, what is a portrait in the first place? What defines it as such? And since I raised that question, might as well ask – what is a landscape? A nature morte photograph? How far can one actually stretch such a concept, how far can you superficially move away from your idea in your attempts to profoundly visualize it?
In order to answer these questions I must, ironically, leave them be for a while and form another. Throughout the years that I have studied in the Faculty of Arts, I have been faced with this one following question again and again. How much artist’s input beyond the actual work of art is needed to interpret it successfully? Is it valid and justified to refer to a title, perhaps a description provided by the author along the work of art, even his own merits, biography, whilst trying to unravel it? Or does the strength, impact of such a piece lie in its own richness, and the work should “speak for itself” without any added explanation and context, if it was ever to be worthy of admiration and appreciation of the brightest among us? Both opinions have been fiercely defended (and, as a result, fiercely attacked) by students and teachers, and I envy those who have enough criteria, enough strong arguments to stick to just one. Such ability is beyond me, for I have always managed – and, in a way, failed – to understand either one. Because a title, a complimenting story, even a music playing in the background during an exhibition can too, be a part of the art. We are long past the time when a painting could only be just a painting, a musical composition – just a composition. You can thank synthesis of art forms for that. But then, in a way, accepting such aids also imposes a sort of a limitation on the work of art restricting, narrowing our interpreting possibilities. This idea was discussed in detail by a French philosopher, literary critic and semiotician Roland Barthes in his essay, “The Death of the Author”. I find it necessary for me to elaborate on this concept a little further in order to solve the questions that arose at the beginning of this article.
If I were to (over)simplify his idea, Barthes stated that interpreting a work of art (in his case, literary work, but the idea can be easily adapted to visual arts) on the strength of our knowledge about the author, the creator of that work, limits our choice of potential associations and conclusions about that work. And thus, “death of the author” is a necessity if one is to successfully “take in”, say, a portrait photograph. One must lose the weight of context that is the author and anything beyond the work of art itself to be able to see all that it can be subjective, individual and different to each of us. Once there is no author behind the work of art – and that happens the moment you start dwelling deep into it – the viewer himself becomes its creator, for he sees not what the artist wanted to show, not what the artist saw, but how he himself can relate to the work of art.
What is a portrait? A landscape, a nature morte? Combining these questions gives us one. What is a work of art? Is it what the creator presents us with – that which we can touch, hear; what the creator wants us to see and feel? Or is it what we make of it, what we feel and understand while observing the work without any guidance, subjectively as if we are the creators? Is it our state of mind and the story that unfolds, as we try and unravel the photograph in front of us? Roland Barthes’ idea would lead us to believe the answer is the latter, while those who appreciate creator’s context, guidance, those who want to see what he saw and feel what he felt would probably support the former conclusion. Whilst observing a photograph that was either a portrait or a piece of artistic nude, I had a choice of which concept to base my interpretation on. A choice is a good thing. And I chose both. In this case, I decided to merge the two philosophies, two points of view into one. This portrait, it didn’t tell a story of a person through her face, her expression. Instead, it showed her mind, her state. And through that, through showing her body, allowed the viewer to know her even without knowing her face. And this knowledge about her was based on the photograph itself, on my personal affection, experience, feelings and associations, which became possible with some help from the author. Anyone else would have seen the work differently, but even in that case he would have been aided by the author to create, finish his work. Or one could discard any guidance from the author and choose to see the photograph for something completely different, as long as it resonates with that person in some way.
So what we have is a photograph that is not a portrait, but also is. Because we can choose to see it this way. We can also choose not to. Which brings us to the final question. How far can we stretch such an idea? How far can we move away, in the face of it, from what we are trying to show, only to show it more profoundly? The photograph that provoked me into writing this article, at least it had an actual person in it. Can a landscape be a portrait? Can a portrait be a nature morte, a still life photograph? Once again I must ask you to imagine something. Imagine a pair of round, small, thin-framed glasses in a brightly lit room. You can’t exactly see all of it, but the fragments of the white surface on which the spectacles are left on are enough for you to realize it to be a beautiful, slightly worn white grand piano. The scene is lit by natural light coming from enormous windows just outside the frame. Now, one can choose to admire the lightness of this still life photograph. The beauty of the light, subtle pale, sharp reflection in the glass of the spectacles. Or, one can see it as a portrait of John Lennon. And if the artist, the author of this photograph lends you a helping hand of sorts – a title “The Portrait”, well, all the better. You can choose not to see it if you so wish. If, in your mind, a pair of glasses can not be a portrait.
Our ability to understand and creatively interpret fine art photography – any work of art, for that matter – rests solely on our experience, sophistication and education. And not just the artistic education, mind you. If, whenever you look at a specific photograph that is a portrait, all you see is a secluded lake somewhere amid fog-hidden hills and mountains, with a single wooden red boat ashore, then that portrait is a landscape to you. The fact you also have a chance to see a portrait which the artist wanted you to see, how he wanted you to see it, only makes interpreting fine art photography that much more interesting.